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Roster battles provide surprises for Penguins

The good news for the Penguins entering their final three preseason games and in advance of the final cuts from 34 to 23 players is that this roster-trimming business has been more difficult than anticipated.

Perhaps that’s because new coach Eddie Olczyk has no experience at crushing young prospects’ hopes and dreams and finds the task distasteful.

Perhaps that’s because other than Mario Lemieux and a few others, those in contention for roster spots are all equally mediocre, or worse.

Or it could be that there’s more depth in the organization than the Pens had initially counted upon.

Whatever, tonight’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Mellon Arena, and preseason games against Washington on Saturday in Portland, Me., and Sunday in Columbus will prove revealing as far as the final 23 is concerned.

Going in, this much is certain:

The Pens will keep two goaltenders (more on that later).

And the defensive corps will consist of Drake Berehowsky, Marc Bergevin, Dan Focht, Josef Melichar, Brooks Orpik, Michal Rozsival and Dick Tarnstrom (assuming Melichar and Rozsival are projected as healthy for the Oct. 10 opener against Los Angeles).

The forwards, meanwhile, break down as follows as of today:

On the team: Kelly Buchberger, Mike Eastwood, Rico Fata, Brian Holzinger, Konstantin Koltsov, Lemieux, Steve McKenna (as a forward/defenseman swing man), Aleksey Morozov and Martin Straka.

Probably on the team: Ramzi Abid, Reid Simpson.

Fighting to make the team: Colby Armstrong, Kris Beech, Milan Kraft, Tom Kostopoulos, Ryan Malone, Eric Meloche and Matt Murley.

Beech and Kraft are long shots (the organization has about lost patience with both), which leaves five players vying for three spots.

Pencil in Kostopoulos, Malone and Murley as the final three forwards on your 2003-04 Penguins.

Armstrong, a disappointment a year ago, has had a great camp but might still develop more by playing at a high level in the AHL.

Murley noses out Meloche because Murley is a better goal-scorer, and the Pens figure to be offensively challenged this season.

As for the goaltenders, it’s become clear that Sebastien Caron, tonight’s starter, will be one of them and that Marc-Andre Fleury should be the other.

Although the rotation for the weekend hasn’t been announced beyond Caron’s appearance tonight, expect to see Fleury on Saturday night in Maine and quite possibly again Sunday in Columbus. The Pens are past the evaluation stage for this remarkable 18 year old; the idea now is to get him ready.

At this point, only finances can convince the Pens that signing Fleury isn’t the right thing to do.

Allowing that to happen would be a disservice to themselves, their fans and to Fleury. It would also deny all involved the chance to follow what promises to be a compelling storyline no matter how the season plays out.

Economics aside, it’s an easy call.

One of the easiest, in retrospect, of training camp.


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