Monday, January 5, 2009

Plight of the Penguins: A Tough Month for the Defending East Champs

Approximately halfway through the National Hockey League's regular season, the expected contenders in the Eastern Conference have begun to ensconce themselves in playoff position.

Montreal, Washington, Philadelphia, and the New York Rangers are all in sixth place or better in the East, to no one's surprise. All four of those squads played postseason hockey last spring, and most around the game thought their prospects were just as good—or better—for the 2009 playoffs.

But wait, where are the defending East champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who were threatening to move into the conference's top spot after finishing November with a 14-6-3 record?

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, and company sit in ninth place (42 points) leading up to Monday's divisional dance with the Rangers in New York.

It is strangely coincidental that Pittsburgh takes the Madison Square Garden ice tonight to try to put an end to an extended stretch of poor play that arguably began during the team's previous visit to the World's Most Famous Arena.

The Penguins played their first game of December on the third day of the month and held a 2-0 lead halfway through the contest on Broadway. With Pittsburgh holding a 2-1 edge in the waning moments of the third period, Petr Prucha nailed the equalizer, helping transform the game into a 3-2 shootout win for the Rangers.

Including that squandered Dec. 3 standings point, Pittsburgh has posted a 5-10-1 record in the past month, collecting only 11 of a possible 32 points during that span. After racing out to the franchise's best start in more than a decade, the Penguins are now faced with the prospect of repeating the torrid second-half surge they've relied upon the last two seasons.

What appeared to be a short slide in the middle of December has turned into a legitimate season-threatening slump in recent weeks, tracing back to an embarrassing 7-3 home defeat at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada on Dec. 20. Leading into that pivotal night, the Penguins were looking like a return to form was imminent, with franchise goaltender Fleury back in the crease after a prolonged groin injury; spurred on by a superior effort from its goalie, Pittsburgh had blitzed Atlanta 6-3 just two nights before.

The trouncing administered by the Leafs effectively revealed just about all that has plagued the Penguins of late: spotty goaltending (Fleury let in a pair of soft goals early), impotent special teams (Pittsburgh surrendered three PPGs and scored one meaningless late goal in five man-advantage chances) and a lack of production from 21-year-old captain Crosby (zero points and just one shot).

That putrid formula has repeated itself more often than not since then, producing three more sobering losses at Mellon Arena and more moral victories—close losses to Montreal and Boston—than actual ones.

What has made this standings freefall even more vexing is the team's inability to put forth a strong effort in more than one category. For example, Fleury played quite well during the week of Christmas, surrendering eight goals in four games, only to watch his powerful offense produce just seven as the team went 2-2.

It is difficult to be consistently successful in the NHL without either a dangerous power play or a stifling penalty kill, and a large part of performing well in specialty situations is winning faceoffs. The Penguins lost crack draw man Mike Zigomanis to an undisclosed upper-body injury during the Dec. 3 loss (coincidence?), leaving a below-average faceoff squad without its clutch puck-possession catalyst.

Less easily explainable is Crosby's scoring swoon. The club's superstar centerman has looked no better than average over the last 16 games, curiously occuring on the heels of his spectacular hat trick against the Devils on Nov. 29. Is he hiding an injury? The NHL's king of making no excuses will likely never say publicly if a physical ailment is holding him back.

On a positive note, Crosby still ranks third in the league in scoring with 50 points (15 goals plus 35 assists trails only teammate Malkin and Alex Ovechkin), despite coming up scoreless in five of the Penguins' last eight games, probably the worst stretch of his transcendent four-year career. Make no mistake, though, the Pens need No. 87 to be his usual 1.5-points-per-game self in order to truly be considered a Stanley Cup contender.

Somewhere along the way to the current group's best regular season yet, the Penguins have run into a significant barrier, raising real doubt about the team's credentials for the first time in more than a year. As it stands now, Pittsburgh is only a single point out of the East playoff field, but expectations and early-season success dictate that ninth place is a real disappointment.

Beginning this evening in the Big Apple, the Penguins have a chance to respond to their detractors and pull off a third consecutive second-half rally. What better place to start another surge than the site where the snowball first began to roll downhill?

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