Jim Kelley
Thursday September 25th, 2008

We'll skip the marriage made in hell jokes.

After all, Miroslav Satan just escaped from the New York Islanders, so enough with the torment shtick. But the veteran winger, a player who has been vilified with almost as many under-the-breath satanic verses as he has career goals (337 in 947 regular season games) isn't about to get a free pass to the right side of Sidney Crosby, either.

Truth is, for a player who prefers to shun the spotlight; the 33-year-old native of Slovakia couldn't be in a more difficult position at this point in his career.

A free-agent signee, he's expected to replace Marian Hossa on the Penguins' top line, fill the scoring gap left by what Pittsburgh fans will tell you was a defection to Detroit by Hossa during the offseason. Worse, Satan will be expected to finish off enough of Crosby's slick passes to carry the Pens back to the Stanley Cup Final where seemingly the entire hockey world expects them to re-engage the Wings and this time win the championship.

For the record, Satan, who was bedeviled by problems with his right knee, scored all of 16 goals for the Islanders last season. Also for the record, no team was hit harder this summer by free-agent defections than the Penguins. Adding to that misery, the Pens will start the regular season with long-term injuries to defensemen Ryan Whitney (foot surgery) and Sergei Gonchar (shoulder). Now, when last we checked on the Pens, it was June and they were losing the Cup to Detroit largely because of breakdowns on the back end -- and did we mention that almost teams that go to the final often struggle to even make the playoffs the following season?

Talk about pressure.

Still, Crosby doesn't seem worried.

"Miro is a great scorer," Crosby said before the Pens beat Toronto, 3-2, in a preseason outing on Wednesday night. "He's someone who knows where to go. It's going to make my job easier because he'll be in front of the net."


Satan has a reasonable reputation as a goalscorer, but over the years his goals haven't generally come from positioning himself in front of the net. His critics in Edmonton and Buffalo lamented that he rarely went anywhere near the net and instead used his deadly shooting skills to pile up points from the outer reaches of the contact areas. He also earned a label as a player who sometimes scored most when it mattered least, and at the end of his time in Buffalo, he was virtually run out of town by fans and some teammates with the seeming blessing of coach Lindy Ruff.

Most of the reasons for Satan's exorcism in Buffalo centered around complaints that he wouldn't pay the price to win. It was a little unfair because Satan was (and is) a player who simply isn't built to engage in rough stuff and he doesn't have the mental inclination to try and be something he's not. He is, however, a proud player and a very intelligent one. He gets his points because he knows where to go and when to be where the puck will end up. The bet in Pittsburgh is that despite his poor finish on the Island, Satan can return to the form that saw him score 35 goals during his first season in New York. After all, he is smart enough and skilled enough to know how to capitalize on golden opportunities.

Crosby acknowledged that it will be different playing with Satan instead of Hossa, but he and left winger Pascal Dupuis expect to make the necessary adjustments in time for the start of the long climb back to the playoffs.

"Miro is a guy who finds the holes more and is a goal scorer, an awesome goal scorer," Crosby said. "He has that mentality of finding the [open] spots. He'll fit in well, and I want to make sure that I'll get him the looks. Right now we're getting used to each other and getting a feeling for how we play."

Satan doesn't say much of anything. He knows he's the new guy, the one who has to fit in. He also knows that under coach Michel Therrien, his spot on Crosby's wing is not guaranteed and that Crosby went through a succession of wingers without success before finally clicking with Hossa on his side.

"I'm a player and those decisions will be up to the coach," Satan said with regard to seizing the most coveted spot on the Pittsburgh roster. "Whatever role they have for me is fine."

Still, Satan is nobody's fool. He knows that the opportunity for a stunning reversal of fortune is before him. Ransomed from the devil's island via a one-year free-agent contract, he knows what needs to be done with Crosby to secure his fate and fortune.

"The key is to keep up with him," Satan said. "He can make faster plays than most other guys, so you have to be ready all the time. You don't have time to wonder what he is going to do. You have to react and play and be on the edge all the time."

Satan has been in that position before and has excelled at it. Even at 33, he likely will finish the majority of chances that Crosby creates for him. But keeping his spot on that line will also depend on how well he plays defense, how fast he gets back after taking risks in the offensive zone, how well he connects with Crosby as a linemate and, perhaps most importantly, how much effort Therrien sees him put out when the games are away from Pittsburgh or when the opposition plays to the physical levels of cross-state rival Philadelphia and other tough teams.

Satan says he isn't worried and that he has played the defensive game before in Buffalo. But it remains to be seen whether he can play it well enough to appease his coach and help the Penguins do what many feel might be near impossible: return to the Cup final and, this time, win it.

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