Pittsburgh Penguins Waddle Into Second Half of the Season

Mike VrableContributor IJanuary 10, 2009

Look up Penguins on Wikipedia, and two facts stand out. They are flightless birds and they lack a fear of humans. Apparently, another fact is abundantly clear: Penguins have a tough time winning, or even holding a lead.


December was a horrible month for the defending Eastern Conference champs; those bad fortunes have carried into the New Year.


Jumping out 3-0 against the second-to-last place Nashville Predators on Thursday, the Pens allowed five unanswered goals in the losing effort. This after the team had rebounded from a five-game losing streak with a win over the equally hapless Atlanta Thrashers.


What has happened to a team with talented young players who skated for a chance to win Lord Stanley’s Cup seven months ago? Who is to blame? How do they turn the losing trend around? These are all questions that leave the Pittsburgh media, team management, and the players themselves scratching their heads.


This past Tuesday, one radio talk show host spent his entire show convinced that the organization was primed to make a coaching change. Even going to lengths of posting to his station Web page the resume and qualifications of the supposed replacement: Pat Quinn.


This was the same day The Ottawa Sun errantly reported that the Senators were courting very the same man.


Consider this: Quinn has guided NHL teams to the Cup Finals, won Olympic Gold behind the bench for Canada, and just guided the Canadian National Team to the top of the podium at the World Junior Championships.  What does that say? He is capable of molding young talent, while also rallying veteran pros.


The main question still remains. If the Pittsburgh Penguins keep Michel Therrien, what kind of moves will turn the team’s fortunes around?


We know that the organization remains committed to the core of the team. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, and now Jordan Staal are all locked up until the 2012-'13 season. Staal signed a four-year contract extension worth $16 million on Thursday.


Starting goalie Fleury looks tentative after returning from his groin injury, showing some hesitation in his decisions between the pipes. He seems especially vulnerable when the opposition plays the puck behind his own cage.


Does GM Ray Shero need to bring in more enforcers to allow Crosby, Malkin and Staal to score more goals? Ruslan Fedotenko, who has four fights in his eight-year NHL career, tried to be the tough guy with the Thrashers’ Colby Armstrong and broke his hand; he is now out four to six weeks.


The team has played six pairs of back-to-back games since November. Addressing if fatigue might be a factor, Penguins’ television color commentator (and former player) Bob Errey said after the Nashville loss that the coaching staff keeps a close eye on the delicate balance between the frequency of games and the length of practice sessions.


What motivates a .500 team halfway through a 2008-09 campaign when expectations were much higher? Is it fear of a trade? In postgame comments from the players, they repeat the mantra continuously: We have to be consistent...We have to keep grinding it out...We have to put more pucks on net. Such simple answers in a complicated situation.


Last year at the halfway point of an eventual Stanley Cup Finals appearance, the team had earned 49 points. This year’s squad is only five short of that mark. However, the difference from the amazing run of last season is the Penguins’ goals against average.  With 125 allowed, that’s one more goal than the team has scored.


On the dry-erase board in the locker room at Mellon Arena, Therrien updates the league standings every day. Subliminal motivation doesn’t work against the talented teams in the Eastern Conference. Leadership does, whether it comes from the coach or within the current roster of players.


"We have the team that can bounce back and win," Fleury said. "Even if we'd make a trade or two, I don't think one guy is going to change the team."


The Penguins don’t need to fly. They just have to manage back-to-back wins to restore something resembling momentum.