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As the Pittsburgh Penguins begin pursuit of an elusive three-peat, they're still the team to beat

One of the most potent one-two punches in NHL history, Sidney Crosby, left, and Evgeni Malkin have teamed up for two consecutive Stanley Cup championships -- and three overall. Dave Sandford/NHLI/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports

It's the day before the Columbus Blue Jackets' final preseason tuneup, and coach John Tortorella has barely scouted his next opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins. The NHL preseason is short, and Tortorella has his own roster decisions to worry about.

And even though the Penguins -- who knocked the upstart Blue Jackets out of the playoffs last season on their way to winning a second consecutive Stanley Cup championship -- underwent significant changes this summer, Tortorella and his players feel like they still know exactly what to expect when they play Pittsburgh.

"I know some bodies have been moved," Tortorella says. "But that's a deep team, and a very good-coached team."

And a team that still revolves around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

"They still have their goaltending, their top defensemen and two world-class players -- who are maybe best players in the league -- in Malkin and Crosby," Columbus captain Nick Foligno says. "I don't think much changes when you have those kind of guys on the team. The pieces around them will change, but because of what they've built, they're always going to be the threat."

No team has won three consecutive Stanley Cups since the New York Islanders racked up four in row from 1980 to 1983. Yet, in spite of the odds, Columbus -- and many other teams in the league -- view Pittsburgh as the team to beat, again, in 2017-18.

"No question, I put [the Penguins] as the early favorites," said one Eastern Conference general manager. "It's a credit to [Pittsburgh's] front office. They had to make some tough decisions this summer. But when you create a roster with such depth, those hard decisions don't hurt you."

Or as a veteran scout explained it: "[The Penguins] made unemotional decisions. That's what championship teams have to do."

After Pittsburgh won the title in 2016, its offseason choices weren't so hard. The Penguins were able to keep virtually every piece of their Stanley Cup team intact. This year, hamstrung by both the expansion draft and salary-cap concerns, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford was forced to say some tough goodbyes.

Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the franchise's all-time leaders in wins, waived his no-trade clause so the Penguins could move on to the younger and more affordable Matt Murray. (The 23-year-old Murray's stat line in 21 playoff games last year: 15-6, .923 save percentage, 2.08 goals-against average). Fleury, 32, became the marquee expansion draft addition for the NHL's newest franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights.

Nick Bonino, Pittsburgh's third-line center behind Crosby and Malkin on both title teams, signed a four-year, $16.4 million deal with the Nashville Predators on July 1. Playoff hero Chris Kunitz -- whose snipe in double overtime of Game 7 sealed the Eastern Conference finals -- signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning that the Penguins could not match. And defenseman Trevor Daley (who departed for the Detroit Red Wings) and venerable center Matt Cullen (who'll spend a farewell season in his home state, with the Minnesota Wild) also must be replaced.

Bonino could be the biggest loss. Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik -- who played 11 seasons in Pittsburgh before signing with its division rival in 2014 -- said that having a player like Bonino on the third line is what made the Penguins a "nightmare matchup."

"When we won in '09, we had Jordan Staal as the third-line center; he [later became] the first-line center in Carolina," Orpik said. "[We were] just spoiled to have that luxury, and that's the reason Pittsburgh has been able to remain on top. Usually, you can have the top two D pairs go against their top lines and try to shut them down. But to have three lines, spreading the wealth, is an impossible matchup for other teams. We'd look at the board and it was like, 'You can exchange any three.' That's what makes them so good. There's probably a lot of other reasons, but that's No. 1."

But like Staal before him, even Bonino is a replaceable part within the Penguins' system.

"Of course losing Bonino is a loss," said the NHL scout. "But that's a team that seems to find talent from anywhere."

Penguins winger Phil Kessel, a veteran who stayed put, seemed nonplussed.

"Obviously we lost some veteran guys, right?" Kessel said. "But guys just step up here. It happens every time. New guys step up, they play well on this team and we kind of just keep going."

Last season, that new guy was rookie Jake Guentzel, who emerged as Pittsburgh's breakout star, with 33 points in 40 games. Many teams were skeptical that the undersized Guentzel was pro material and bypassed him in the 2013 draft. Some scouts even suggested that his wrists looked "too delicate" to snap off NHL-caliber shots.

"Some teams ordered MRIs; they wanted to see if I could keep growing," said Guentzel, whom the Penguins selected in the third round with the 77th pick.

Flash forward four years. Now 5-foot-11,and 180 pounds, Guentzel skates on a line with Crosby. And led the league with 13 playoff goals this past spring.

Meanwhile, the player most likely to replace Bonino is another virtual unknown: newcomer Greg McKegg. The 25-year-old, who had short stints with the Toronto Maple Leafs (who drafted him in the third round in 2010), the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, is on a one-year, two-way contract worth $650,000 at the NHL level. McKegg has only nine points in 65 career NHL games. But he impressed Penguins coach Mike Sullivan during the preseason with his speed and success in the faceoff circle.

Standing 6 feet tall and weighing 192 pounds, McKegg could be the latest cog in Sullivan's system.

"He's brought a good structure and discipline to a group that needed that," Orpik said of Sullivan. "Everyone thinks that's a real dream job to coach those guys, but it's a lot harder than people perceive it to be. Coaching that many superstars, it's probably fun a lot of times, but trying to keep them happy all the time is a real challenge. From an outsider's perspective, Mike realizes everyone is different but holds them all accountable to the same level."

And perhaps the most accountable is Crosby himself. The captain, who turned 30 in August, has been nothing if not consistent since his rookie year in 2005. Besides the points, the championships and the accolades, Crosby sits at his locker each day and fields questions from reporters and, according to teammates, works just as hard as anyone on the ice.

Most important, Crosby makes everyone around him better.

"When Sid came in, I don't think he necessarily knew the effect he had on everyone else, just with his presence," Orpik said. "He was so young and so focused on himself. Not in a selfish way; he's just so focused on what he's doing. He didn't realize everyone was watching him. I think he's learned to embrace it, and you can see how that has affected the team."

Indeed, once again, it might all come down to this for Pittsburgh: As long as Crosby is in his prime, the Penguins will contend.