With the top players in the game, including the NHL's leading scorer, some expected the Pens to trample the East—so what's the deal?
A couple weeks ago, we wrote about the impact of goaltender Fleury's return (see 'Fleury to the Rescue?'). As expected, he did provide a bit of a spark, but his return has not turned the Pens around. In the previous analysis, it was pointed out that a lack of physical presence around the net is limiting the scoring options the Pens have.
In fact, that is a tone you hear even from Penguins players—when a player talks about the "willingness to play hard" or "paying the price" to get goals, that is generally what they mean. Because if you hang around the opponent's net, you are going to get beat upon—sticks and elbows have a funny way of finding your hands and face with startling frequency in that cozy crease.
It's not that the Penguins aren't willing to pay the price—hey, every NHL player has already paid a physical price just to play the game—it's just that they don't seem to have any players who are good at that part of the game. Do the names Gary Roberts, Ryan Malone, and Georges LaRaque sound familiar?
Unlike some commentators, I am not second-guessing the Pens for not re-signing any of those guys. I have no doubt that GM Ray Shero would have loved to keep all the same players from the Stanley Cup runner-up team of last year, but there's that darn salary cap we all wanted so badly. So now what? Both Shero and Coach Therrien have publicly supported the current cast of players, even as lineup changes continue. (Do they really have a choice?) The truth is, the Penguins are losing their identity.
They should be the hot young team, hungry and talented, with just enough experience to make them lethal. However, injuries and personnel turnover have conspired to produce a team that has been called weak and easy to play against. You just know that can't sit well with Mr. Crosby and company. Their current slump can't be totally blamed on poor goal-tending (although there was some of that), lackluster effort, or substantial new injuries (that we know of).
Nope, what has happened is that the razor-thin margin between winning and losing in the NHL is just above the heads of this young team with its current cast. Expect to see a new face or two in the lineup at some point to add that grit around the goal, and then when all the key Penguins (Sergei Gonchar, anyone?) get healthy, we may see the team everyone expected to see this year.
The Penguins know what they have to do, and there are plenty of games left to play. Look for the Pens to make a few player changes, finish the season strong, and be a force in the playoffs once again.