November 11, 2010
The Pittsburgh Penguins have lost six of eight games, with last night's five-goal Boston Bruins rally in the third period as the gut-punch punctuation mark for that slump; your classic "smile/blink/"W.T.F?"/vomit" evolution of fan emotions.
(As usual, we implore you to check out The Pensblog's recap in times like these.)
The Penguins are 7-8-1, which is bad enough for 10th in the East and good enough for third in the Atlantic. Sidney Crosby(notes) has 22 points, but the rest of the offense is playing catch-up. That hurts, because their goal differential sits at plus-1, after finishing as a plus-20 last season.
Struggling to score at times (compared to last season), struggling to stop others from scoring. And now, suddenly, seeing their band-aid on an increasingly uncomfortable goaltending situation slowly being ripped off.
Coming up, a look at what plagues the Penguins this season and whether there's a cure in sight.
We begin on the blue line, where ESPN's Pierre LeBrun is aghast by the Penguins' D-corps:
But the defensive play as a team? Yeesh.
When the Penguins brought in Zbynek Michalek(notes) and Paul Martin(notes) on July 1, it was hard not to think that they had among the best blue lines in the East, even with Sergei Gonchar's(notes) departure. Those two signings were exactly what Pittsburgh needed after placing 20th in goals against last season.
After Wednesday's effort, the Pens sit 19th out of 30 teams. Not good.
Martin's not been terrible, and leads the team in ice time with 24:37 on average per game. But Marcia Di Michele of Suite101 and The Hockey Writers captures what's happening outside of the box score:
GM Ray Shero committed a lot of dough this past off-season to re-vamp the Penguins blueline, seen by some as their weakest link. On paper, it seemed like the Penguin defense would become their strength. But on some nights, it's downright awful. Turnovers, bad pinches, poor decisions and sloppy play has plagued the Penguins defense so far this season, with no end in sight. Pittsburgh played an amazing first two periods against the Bruins, and went into the third with a fairly comfortable two-goal lead. But almost in an instant, the team had a complete meltdown, and watched their 4-2 lead turn into a 7-4 loss over just 20 minutes of play. The defensive breakdowns this season seem to happen like clockwork. It's almost as if it wouldn't be normal if there wasn't some kind of defensive lapse. The defense on this team, and not just the guys on the blueline, but the entire team in general needs to step up big time, because the constant blown leads and bad giveaways that lead to goals is the main reason Pittsburgh currently sits outside of the playoff picture in the Eastern conference.
In fairness, a guy like Jordan Staal(notes) could immediately change that "team defense" problem, as their best defensive forward and primary penalty killer last season. But he's not walking through that dressing room door anytime soon; and if he did, he'd likely slip on a towel and break his leg, the way things are going for him this season.
Then there's the goaltending.
Marc-Andre Fleury's(notes) struggles are the stuff of hockey legend now: a GAA of 3.54 to rank No. 37 in the League, a save percentage of .853 and a 1-6 record. The way Coach Dan Bylsma has used him and has talked about his lack of confidence had Captain Crosby asking for more patience. Now, suddenly, first-month savior Brent Johnson(notes) isn't stopping everything in sight. Now, suddenly, the talk returns to whether Fleury can find his game and back-stop this team.
Bylsma's dilemma is a doozy. It's hard to blame him for going with Johnson, but he surely could have handled the Fleury situation better. And at some point, Fleury figures to need a stretch of games to find his rhythm. Bylsma insists that will happen. The time is ripe, given that Johnson has surrendered 11 goals in his past two starts.
"Well, I'm sure everybody has their own opinion in here, and it doesn't really matter, 'cause there's one guy who's going to decide whether or not (Fleury) is playing," Orpik said. "I don't know if there's a right or wrong answer, to be honest. Maybe you throw him in there and he gets his confidence back by playing that much. The flipside of it: What if you put him put back in there and he continues to struggle and we miss the playoffs by two points? Then you kind of sit here and kick yourself and say, 'Maybe we should have let him work through it in practice earlier on.' "
MAF has never exactly been Dominik Hasek(notes) back there, stealing games left and right. He's at his best when the team is playing well in front of him, and right now it isn't. Which makes this a bit of conundrum, as Orpik pointed out: Is it worth risking a deeper slump for both player and team is Fleury can't answer the bell?
But it goes beyond goaltending for the Penguins now. It's a defense that makes the wrong decision at a critically wrong time. It's Evgeni Malkin(notes), yet again playing through one of those stretches where you hear more "I thought despite not scoring, Geno played one of his best games of the season" than "Malkin's hat trick leads Penguins to victory."
It's a team that can look excellent for two periods and then act as a doormat for the Bruins in the third. Which is to say that while there may be no need for panic, there is cause for concern.