Monday, March 2, 2009

Onward and Upward: Penguins Make Changes, Climb Standings

I don't have access to Ray Shero's iPod, but if the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager didn't own Sheryl Crow's 1997 hit "A Change Would Do You Good" two weeks ago, he probably does now.

Singer-songwriter wisdom aside, with his team threatening to miss the playoffs a year after rocking the hockey world with its steamrolling of the Eastern Conference bracket, Shero knew something had to be adjusted.

Fifteen days after firing head coach Michel Therrien and replacing him with Dan Bylsma, who had been behind the bench for the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa., the Flightless Fowl have earned 11 of a possible 14 points in the standings and are back in playoff position for the first time since the opening week of 2009.

To what shall we attribute the sudden surge? Considering the Pens have averaged a healthy four goals per game during their current 5-1-1 run, it would be tempting to lump most of the praise on the offense.

Didn't Bylsma mention on his first day in Pittsburgh that he wanted to emphasize attacking and dictating the play? Maybe the increased number of red lights is simply the result of more aggressive hockey.

The refreshingly balanced list of offensive contributors during Bylsma's seven-game reign certainly advances that premise. Led by Evgeni Malkin and his five goals, 11 players have combined to net the 24 scores since the coaching change.

Most notable are the two gentlemen tied for second with three lamp-lighters apiece: grinding center Max Talbot and flighty winger Miroslav Satan. The fact that these two, light-years apart as far as playing styles are concerned, are both enjoying increased producting under Bylsma's revamped system is a testament to the success of said system.

If nothing else, getting goals from Jordan Staal, Sergei Gonchar, Ruslan Fedotenko, Petr Sykora, Kris Letang and newly-acquired Chris Kunitz dulls the impact of Sidney Crosby's groin strain, a stubborn injury that has kept the National Hockey League's No. 3 scorer in the press box for the past three games.

Despite Pittsburgh's climb to eighth in the East, persistent issues have continued to irritate in the past half-month. The penalty-killing unit, in the bottom half of the league since the opening weeks of the season, has continued to surrender more than its share, including six goals against in its past four contests.

In addition, the team's defensive-zone coverage has been spotty as the Pens try to get acclimated to Bylsma's mandate that they apply more pressure to the puck-carrier. That being said, the Pens only allowed five goals in three games last week, so the learning curve is apparently beginning to flatten with repetition.

And even though Gonchar's return has brought a certain poise and stability to the Pittsburgh blueline, the presence of No. 55 has not yet yielded a glut of power-play goals, although it has made the man-advantage effort more fluid and unpredictable.

But despite the weak links in the chain, the Penguins have been earned two points more often than not, and when a team is fighting for a crack at the postseason, winning is the only thing that matters.

There are three games remaining on a pivotal five-game road trip, including a Thursday clash with the Florida Panthers, who lead the Pens by two points for sixth in the conference. An emotional battle at Washington looms Sunday afternoon, and then the schedule turns very favorable, with nine of the next 10 games at Mellon Arena.

On top of the intensity of late season match-ups, the trade deadline falls Wednesday afternoon at 3 p.m., a.k.a. Ray Shero's last chance this season to make a significant impact on the roster.

All of which means his next download is a lot more likely to be from one of the other 29 teams than from iTunes.

Sorry, Sheryl.

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