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Penguins Navigating Lineup, Schedule and Tighter Standings in Quest for Three-Peat

Sidney Crosby, captain of back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning Penguins, says winning the NHL's top prize gets harder every year.

TORONTO (AP) It has been more than 30 years since an NHL team has completed a Stanley Cup three-peat.

Could the Pittsburgh Penguins end that drought this season?

Captain Sidney Crosby says winning the NHL's top prize gets harder every year.

''The league is just so tight,'' Crosby said Wednesday at the Hockey Hall of Fame, where the Penguins gathered to donate a ring from their second Cup victory last spring. ''Feels like every year it just gets tighter and tighter. There's just no separation from team to team. I think that it brings out the best in everyone, individually and teams as well. It certainly makes for a test every night because there really is no separation between all the teams out there.''

No team has won three consecutive Cups since the early `80s when the New York Islanders took four straight titles.

It doesn't help that the Penguins are coming off two grueling seasons, said general manager Jim Rutherford.

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''It's been tough on our team. When you go back-to-back and have two short offseasons and have the kind of schedule we've had to start the season,'' Rutherford said as he stood less than 20 feet away from the Stanley Cup. ''We're getting to the point now where we're getting a few more days off and we can hopefully play with more consistency.

''I can hopefully add a player or two along the way here to get a chance to do that.''

Maintaining a consistent lineup is one of the hurdles the Penguins have had to navigate. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was taken by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft and Matt Murray, his replacement in net, was put on injured reserve Tuesday with a lower-body injury. A third goalie, Antti Niemi, was supposed to serve as Murray's backup but after three disappointing starts he was put on waivers.

Pittsburgh also lost 11 players to free agency, including shutdown defenseman Ron Hainsey (Toronto Maple Leafs) and left winger Chris Kunitz (Tampa Bay Lightning).

''The hardest part this year was losing some key players,'' Rutherford said. ''The year before, we were in good cap position and we were able to keep most of our team. Going into this year we lost some key guys, so trying to replace those guys is the most difficult thing.''

The Penguins are 13-10-3 this season and have the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. The New York Rangers are a point back with a game in hand and there are six other teams within seven points. Last season, the Penguins finished the season second in the Metropolitan Division, behind only the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals.

Rutherford believes that winning consecutive Stanley Cups has put a target on the Penguins' backs.

''The problem for the team that won the Stanley Cup the year before is that you don't get one easy game in the regular season,'' Rutherford said. ''Because everybody's playing us like it's a playoff game. They all want to beat us so they can measure up to us.''

Murray is week-to-week with his undisclosed lower-body injury. Rutherford has no intention of making any moves to shore up the goaltender position, however, instead relying on 22-year-old Tristan Jarry and minor-league call-up Casey DeSmith.

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''We'll go with our two young guys that haven't played a lot of NHL games,'' Rutherford said. ''Jarry's played well for us and he's a very capable goalie. We'll just keep an eye on it. How long Murray's going to be out, how the goaltending's doing, how the team's doing.

''I'm not actively trying to do something today. I'm always listening though. If you've got an idea for me, let it fly.''


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