Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hope floats in Pittsburgh, even as offense sinks

This was originally published on Sports Haze Pittsburgh:

Even though the Pittsburgh Penguins won both games at home this past weekend in crowd-pleasing shootouts, the most beautiful images of recent vintage for fans of the club came from the practice rink.

In videos posted on the team’s website, convalescing captain Sidney Crosby has almost literally put on a clinic in exact stickhandling, precise shooting and explosive movements under the purview of Penguins’ strength coach Mike Kadar during early-morning sweat sessions.

Sid should’ve charged a fee to witness his sublime ability on display. Most fans would’ve handed over their money without protest; after all, it’s been so long since the World’s Best Player™ had performed his craft for all to see.

According to Penguins beat writer Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the return of Crosby from his persistent concussion rehab draws near. Especially in the context of the Penguins’ last three games, the prospect of No. 87 lacing up the skates once again seems like a shaft of white light from the heavens.

Yes, the Penguins (45-23-8, 98 points) have won four in a row, all by way of shootout, but since netting four regulation goals last Monday night in Detroit, the team has only lit the red light twice during the course of normal play. During that span of 10 full periods, plus four five-minute overtimes, Pittsburgh’s attack has looked anywhere from uncreative to nonexistent.

Of course, recent trade additions James Neal and Alex Kovalev have shone in shootouts, going a combined 5-for-8 over the past week. Those crucial conversions, in addition to Marc-Andre Fleury’s sublime goaltending, have almost solely kept the Penguins within range of first-place Philadelphia, whom they host Tuesday night.

But the welcome injection of Kovalev and Neal into the lineup a month ago has largely been inconsequential to the Penguins’ attack. With the two newly-acquired wingers have been toiling predominantly on the same line, the “second” unit of Chris Kunitz, Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy have done the vast majority of the damage during March.

That supposedly unglamorous trio has combined for 12 goals and 15 assists during the last four weeks, while Kovalev and Neal have merely chipped in two goals and six helpers since their respective arrivals in Pittsburgh. One could argue that all the new guys need is a playmaking center to feed them pucks, and their scoring troubles, shootouts aside, will vanish.

Luckily for the Penguins, that playmaking center is on the verge of a re-debut, and he happens to still be the team’s leading scorer by 18 points (defenseman Kris Letang is second with 48 points, in case you're wondering).

Yeah, that should help.

More from Matt Gajtka:

Pittsburgh Penguins Game 76 Recap: Pens 2, Panthers 1 (SO)

Twitter: @MattGajtka

Facebook: Sports Haze Pittsburgh

Matt Gajtka is a Featured Writer and Penguins Beat Reporter for Sports Haze Pittsburgh. He also hosts the Polish Prodigy Show, a daily sports and culture podcast, on Blog Talk Radio (www.blogtalkradio.com/mattgajtka).

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