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Penguins' Hopes Put On Ice 

On-ice drama outweighed by uncertainty

Despite the fact that I hate losing to the Flyers, I was strangely buoyed after the Pens did so April 11. They followed that game by beating the Rangers (which is always satisfying, no matter what the circumstances). They were led by Sid Crosby, who had his third four-point game of the year in his quest for 100 points in his rookie season. It's all pretty heady stuff. But I couldn't enjoy it as much as I should have.

Why isn't this more fun?

I can be pretty pessimistic generally, but it's hard to know where to stand with the Penguins. It's impossible to separate hope for the team's young prospects from the dread that they'll be working their magic elsewhere as soon as 2008.

For hockey fans, the best-case scenario is this: The Isle of Capri gets the license to build a slots casino in Pittsburgh, the Pens stay put with a slots-funded arena Isle of Capri has pledged to build, and we all watch Sidney hoist Lord Stanley's cup over his head in about, oh, five years. The worst-case scenario is this: Isle of Capri gets the short end of the goalie's stick, Gov. Ed Rendell's back-up plan to finance a new arena with gambling money fails, and the Pens leave town. And in about, oh, five years, Pittsburgh will build a new multipurpose facility on the taxpayer's dime … right around the time I expect to see Crosby with the Stanley Cup. In Portland.

Arena machinations are all I can think about. The players themselves, conversely, have been better and more cohesive since the Olympic break, long after they knew the playoffs were out of the question. They've succeeded partly due to big-time free agent Sergei Gonchar, who in the past 21 games has four goals and 19 assists. Add Crosby's contributions in the past 11 games (seven goals and 15 assists), and you have a team turning the corner. Given that the season has come to an end, of course, the street they've turned on to is closed right now. But it should be a wide-open freeway next year.

The Penguins have also become more mentally resilient than they were early in the season; they've developed some toughness that keeps them in games, and it's taken root in Crosby, too. Against those Flyers, he got drilled and no penalty was called, then came back to score an amazing goal. It seemed like a statement: You're not gonna call a penalty going my way? I'm gonna score anyhow.

It's not just Crosby, though: The Penguin rookies lead all NHL rooks in scoring. If the kids are this good now, how good will they be after they play together for a few more seasons? Add Russian star Evgeni Malkin and another high draft pick next year, and the possibilities leave hockey fans drooling. If Craig Patrick can make better use of the late rounds than he has in recent memory, we might all keel over from paroxysms of joy.

But in a town where we've watched the Pirates for the past 13 years, it's hard not to harden one's heart to other floundering franchises. Hockey's had a rough go of it here, and between a few bad seasons, a few bad trades, Mario's health problems, and a long-term strike, it's easy to be downright dark.

But these guys aren't the Pirates: They haven't lost for nearly that long, and, while baseball will never address its financial inequities, the NHL has taken a big step in the right direction. You don't have to make a leap of faith to believe in these Penguins — it's quite reasonable to think that they will be very good for a very long time, no matter how bad this season has been.

All of which brings me back to this: How much fun is it to watch a team develop while being plagued by visions of their departure? How can we enjoy the 2007 season with this hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles? Pens fans are being denied our fundamental existential right to be in the moment, damnit.

The mere existence of Rendell's alternate plan doesn't guarantee the Pens will stay. But we've been here before, and maybe we're assuming this will play out the way Tom Murphy's Plan B did: Somehow, some way, the facility will be built.

Or not. The suspense — and the irony — are killing me.

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