Penguins getting an early look at Western Conference competition

After starting the season against a Capitals team they know all too well, the Penguins have recently ventured into a slightly more unfamiliar part of this year’s schedule.

Tonight’s game against Colorado marks the middle of a stretch in which the Penguins play four of five games against Western Conference teams.

They played Anaheim Saturday, will face the Avalanche tonight and, after a road game at Montreal, face San Jose and Nashville later this week.

“Obviously there’s a lot more familiarity with the Eastern Conference teams, especially that the teams we play a lot in our division,” defenseman Ian Cole said. “I think it is kind of good to get out and play those Western teams you don’t get to play very often. You kind of get a fresh, new look playing those teams you don’t get to play.”

Conventional wisdom has held that Western Conference teams were often built more on size and physically than their Eastern brethren, which relied on speed and skill. But that line seems to be blurring a bit.

Many players and coaches remarked that these Avalanche, for instance, really resemble the Penguins in the way they try to move the puck up ice with young, quick forwards such as Nathan MacKinnon.

“At this point in the season, you’re more concerned with making sure that your own game is in order,” Penguins center Matt Cullen said. “I think every game you play, the league is so tight right now and everybody’s so good.”

Even though they didn’t face many Western Conference teams toward the end of last season, winger Carl Hagelin pointed out that the Penguins did finish the year with six consecutive games against a Western team in the Stanley Cup final.

“If we didn’t do that, it would feel a bit strange,” Hagelin said. “But since we did that, it just feels like normal games to me.”

Murray getting closer

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said this morning that goaltender Matt Murray is “real close” to rejoining the team for practice as he recovers from a broken finger sustained in last month’s World Cup of Hockey.

Murray was initially diagnosed Sept. 24 and ruled out three to six weeks, a window that started this past weekend.

“He’s been skating a lot, he’s been working with our goalie coach Mike Bales,” Sullivan said. “He’s been skating with some of the guys that have been trying to recover from their injuries. He skated with [Sidney Crosby] this morning. They got a pretty good workout, so his next step is to join the team for practice.”

Crosby still day-to-day

Crosby skated by himself once again before the Penguins’ morning skate this morning. He has skated every day since being diagnosed with a concussion last Monday but only participated in one team session.

Still, Sullivan said today the team is “really encouraged” with the progress Crosby has made and they hope he can make a “big step” in his recovery this week.

“Sid skated this morning, had a real good workout with our coaching staff, and we’ll see how he responds to it,” Sullivan said. “He is making progress, and as I’ve said all along, the nature of those injuries is they tend to be day-to-day.”

Rust nearly back

Bryan Rust is “very close” to getting medical clearance to return to action, according to Sullivan. Rust has been participating with the Penguins in practice this week after missing all of training camp with an undisclosed injury.

“I would envision he would be a coach’s decision here really shortly,” Sullivan said.

Sam Werner: and Twitter @SWernerPG

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