With eight games remaining in the 2009-2010 regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are staggering towards the Stanley Cup playoffs like a punch-drunk prize fighter.
This is, of course, a direct contrast to the 2008-2009 team that not only charged into the spring tourney, but kicked in the proverbial postseason door with a vengeance.
The club’s 6-3-3 record since the end of the Olympic break is not overwhelmingly alarming on paper or in the standings, but on the ice it is another matter.
The Penguins have failed, yet again, to assert themselves against the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. They managed two more listless and uninspiring losses to the New Jersey Devils and suffered a third blown lead defear at the hands of Alex Ovechkin and the league leading Washington Capitals.
I am well aware that regular season domination against certain clubs does not always translate into postseason success against those same clubs.
The playoffs and the regular season are like night and day, but it is impossible to argue that grabbing some wins against the teams that they are battling for Eastern Conference supremacy against wouldn’t have been a nice boost to the Penguins’ confidence (and to their place in the playoff seedings for that matter).
There have been an array of unwanted issues that have crept in and out of Pittsburgh’s game all season long, such as inconsistency over 60 minutes, struggles on the power play, and problems with defensive zone coverage.
The aforementioned concerns have been glaring at times and minute at others (every team has some holes in its game, the key is limiting the exposure of them in the playoffs) but it is some of the more subtle issues that I have noted of late that are a bit disconcerting.
Marc-Andre Fleury has had a rather pedestrian season in net for the Penguins, but he is a proven winner in the NHL and has more often than not come up big when called upon in the past.
However, over this recent stretch of mediocrity Fleury has come up with some very large saves in many of the games only to turn around during the same contests and let up a demoralizing softie or two.
These types of goals, especially in close playoff contests, can be back breakers. They are the kind of damaging markers that can be the difference between marching on or going home during a hotly contested playoff series.
The Flower needs to shore up his game and his confidence over the next couple of weeks if the Pens are going to have any chance of blooming at all this spring.
It is virtually impossible to find fault with or complain about Sidney Crosby’s play. He is far and away the team’s MVP and he gets remarkably better at every phase of the game year in and year out.
His two greatest improvements this season have been his success in the face-off circle and his increased goal scoring acumen (he is currently tied with Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos for the league lead in goals with 45).
Unfortunately, since his return to Pittsburgh’s black and gold from Canada’s red and white, and his Olympic heroism, he has seemed to revert back to his past.
In the last twelve games I have seen much more of Sid the passer as opposed to Sid the scorer.
Crosby is once again “passing up” (pun intended) quality scoring chances, which he had been burying all season, for lower percentage dishes to his teammates that more times than not lead to a missed opportunity instead of a check on the score sheet.
The Penguins captain needs to return to his selfish ways of earlier this season and pepper opposing netminders in the playoffs if he wants to skate with Stanley again this June.
With the exception of the outspoken Brooks Orpik, many of the Penguins tend to look at the positive factors of their recent play. I prefer Orpik’s view.
Maybe it is simply the way I’m wired, but I’m not overly fond of the “oh, everything will come together during the playoffs” stance that many of the club’s players seem to be taking.
I have heard a little too much positive talk from the team in the wake of some disheartening losses and I am starting to wonder if, perhaps, many of the players are just a bit overconfident given their success in the past two postseasons.
Positive attitude is a tremendous tool in any aspect of life, but I like to see a little concern and a healthy dose of anger from a team when things aren’t going their way.
I like my Penguins to have claws.
There are still eight games on Pittsburgh’s schedule, including a nice, beefy six game homestand, to right the ship and get things running smoothly before the Cup tourney.
Ponikarovsky and Leopold have been nice additions who are, understandably, still getting adjusted to their new system, teammates, and surroundings.
Evgeni Malkin needs to get back to being healthy and playing confident “Geno” hockey.
Young blueliners Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski must take the next step in their maturation as large contributors to the franchise and free themselves from their shackles of inconsistency.
Sid needs to be Sid, the secondary scorers need to contribute, the grinders need to crash, bang, and mix it up, the penalty kill needs to remain strong, etc. etc.
There are a lot of items on the Pittsburgh to do list, but it has been done before and can be done again.
I am still confident that the Penguins can be a dangerous team in the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but if they wait too long to play like they can then their summer vacation is going to come a lot earlier than they are used to.