From Relentless To A Lot Less
It is a very frustrating time here in the Steel City. The Penguins have played the top three teams in the East within the past week and a half, yet have dropped all three. The Pens are not in a great position right now as they have yet to show they can take down the elite teams in the East. They fell behind to the Rangers, Bruins, and Flyers by a multi-goal margin and failed in their attempt at a comeback. Teams in the East are not easy to play against. Most of the top eight have a great blend of talent and grinders paired up with top ten goaltenders, so to even think a comeback is the answer is just plain stupid. There are a few glaring holes that this team must fill if they want to even sniff a top four spot.
The first glaring hole over the past few games is easily the lack of a start. The Pens have scored the first goal only twice in their last dozen games. That is only twice in their last DOZEN games. This is huge when you talk about how strong the goaltenders are atop the east. The Pens cannot let themselves drop early and try to play catch up. It is just not a smart way to play. Even with a strong offense, the Penguins style of play is a fast, physical fore check that capitalizes and turnovers and offensive zone time. Their cycle game at times is unstoppable, but at other times they struggle to get into the offensive zone. Last night against Philly, the Pens had a few stretches in the offensive zone where Philly could do nothing. At other times it was the opposite in which the Flyers cycle game could not be stopped. This leads into my second beef with the Pens game as of late.
It wasn’t but three weeks ago that I wrote an article that highlighted the Penguins relentless effort. The past few games have seen a very weak effort on the part of the Pens. They have turned the puck over countless times in their own end and lazily chased after dumped pucks. This was never an issue before, so why now? I have no answer for this, but Coach Bylsma better, which sets me up for my next topic.
What does Dan Byslma do before games now that has his team chasing instead of pushing? Coach Bylsma is regaurded as one of the better coaches in the game, but against Boston, he couldn’t get any match ups that he wanted. His team has seen a drastic drop in their penalty kill and power play. He just hasn’t been able to establish his system.
In many ways injuries have been a part of this. Kris Letang has yet to return from a head shot and Zbynek Michalek has been sidelined with concussion symptoms. Derek Engellend is currently out with a lower body injury and Sidney Crosby is out for “precautionary” purposes. Injuries can never be an excuse though. Many teams are fighting through injuries. Look at the top three teams in the Atlantic. All three are missing their best defencemen. Philly is missing Pronger, NYR’s are missing Staal, and Pittsburgh is missing Letang, but the other two teams are consistently winning while Pittsburgh has been “hanging” in there. It just doesn’t cut it anymore. This team can win without certain players in the line up, but have not shown that recently.
But, when all is said and done this team is still very talented and very strong. If anything, they just have to get some mojo back. James Neal had his first goal in six games last night and Evgeni Malkin is back to playing at a very high level. The team just needs a strong effort in all aspects every night to continue to win. I leave out the goaltenders here, because despite all the injuries, Fleury and Johnson have played relatively strong. It is going to take a lot to get back into the top three, but if any team has a shot it is the Pens. They just need to put their problems aside and play hockey the way fans have grown accustom to; hard, fast, physical, and relentless.
*One thing that needs to be mentioned though is the play of Pascal Dupuis. In so many ways, Dupuis has been the best all around player for the Penguins this season. His penalty killing is at the top of its game, he is running the point on the powerplay in situations, and he is producing at a career rate. The one penguins who is consistently playing at a high level*