PITTSBURGH - Driving to last Tuesday's morning skate at Consol Energy Center, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was struck by a thought:
"It dawned on me that we still have to break this building in for the playoffs," Bylsma said.
It will be a new experience for the Penguins in their home when the playoffs begin this week.
After a slow start on home ice, the Penguins wound up with 25 home wins for the third consecutive season.
"It's kind of hard to believe this is the last game here," winger Craig Adams said on Tuesday. "This season has just flown by. It's been a great first year in this building."
There's a comfort level that comes with playing at home, but there are no guarantees.
The Penguins were knocked out of last year's playoffs when they lost Game Seven of their second round series to Montreal. It turned out to be the last hockey game at Mellon Arena.
The Penguins won all three of their Stanley Cup championships on the road.
When they made the transition to the new venue, they moved the championship banners across the street, too.
Now they'll find out of they add to the collection. They clinched home ice for the first round with Friday's shootout victory over the Islanders in New York.
"The playoffs are a special time," Adams said. "You look forward to it. I hope we can make some good memories here like we did at Mellon [Arena]."
Aches and pains
When the Penguins had their alumni game at the Winter Classic, former winger Troy Loney said there's one standard topic when old hockey players get together.
"You always ask, 'How's your back?'" Loney said.
Most hockey players wind up with a lifetime of back issues, the price they pay for their sport.
Just take a look at the posture players are in for most of the game. Add in the contact, and it's little wonder most of them have a chiropractor on speed dial.
The boards and ice are unforgiving. There's no way to get out of bounds in hockey to avoid contact.
"There are times when I get down on the floor to play with my kids, and it's real tough to get up," said Phil Bourque, 48, the Penguins radio analyst who played professionally from 1982 to 2000.
"You have to remember that back in the '80s and '90s, defensemen were allowed to cross-check more. It's just the pounding, plus my skating style - I was a bent over at the waist type of skater and that took a toll on my body as well."
Bourque and television analyst Bob Errey, an NHL left wing for 16 seasons, often play an informal game with other staff members.
There's usually a pick-up game after the Penguins and their opponents have their morning skate on game days.
"The little bit of skating that I do now, as soon as I'm done, it's usually my back and groin muscles that hurt the most," Bourque said.
Other players have had bigger problems. Peter Taglianetti, a defenseman on the Penguins' 1991 and '92 Stanley Cup winners, recently underwent hip replacement surgery. Taglianetti is 47.
Errey escaped his career with no major back issues.
"The effects I feel are with my shoulders," he said. "We didn't have much padding. The shoulder pads we wore then were basically just plastic cups, and the hits have taken a toll on my shoulders. I notice that sometimes when I'm trying to sleep at night. It's all those years of hitting the boards, the contact."
Both Bourque and Errey are in reasonably good shape, partly because they're still around the game on a daily basis. They enjoy getting on the ice for the pick-up games.
Bourque and Loney occasionally suit up for celebrity games played for charity in the area.
Despite the occasional aches and pains, Bourque looks back at 48 with no regrets.
"If I had it to all over again, I would do it the exact same way," he said. "Maybe I would have learned a little more about conditioning and nutrition, but back then we didn't know that much about those things."
Still a mystery
Will Sidney Crosby be back for the playoffs?
If anyone knows the answer to that, they're not talking.
Crosby's workouts have picked up in both intensity and frequency, but he's still barred from engaging in any contact.
Crosby last played on Jan. 5, when the second jarring hit in two games left him with a concussion.
He hasn't been available to the media, and the Penguins have stopped issuing regular updates because there really isn't much to say.
Crosby is among his teammates, but they're in the dark about his status, too.
"We're just hoping that one day, there will be a Sidney Crosby sighting and he'll be ready to come back," defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. "It will be like Christmas morning if that happens."