Penguins' 0-2 start proves much more frustrating to fans than the players

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Judging by what I've heard of the public reaction to Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Penguins apparently went down to Washington, lost by 7-0 and then by 10-0, with MVP candidate Evgeni Malkin spiking their Gatorade with sedatives and partaking copiously on both occasions.

That about right?

Would there be any point in maybe waiting 48 hours before nailing the 22-year-old Malkin permanently to the big Barry Bonds mural of postseason despair?

Any point whatsoever in taking Games 1 and 2 at face value, i.e. two feverish one-goal hockey games, the kind that make the NHL playoffs so uniquely compelling, each decided as much on providence as on athletic brilliance or lack of same?

Would it be impertinent at this point to mention that the Capitals, a better team than the Penguins all winter long, look better right now, too, wonder of wonders, and that even at that, the Penguins nearly swiped both games on Washington ice?

So what's all the twitching about?

"These two games, we played probably well enough to win," Sidney Crosby was saying yesterday at Southpointe, where a polite crowd of 30 something gathered to watch an optional workout. "The main thing is not to get frustrated."

The main point of frustration, nowhere near as acute within the Penguins' room as without, is Malkin, who, by my accounting, has scored exactly as many points as Alexander Ovechkin in these playoffs. Malkin created some space for himself to avoid the media yesterday despite the best efforts of a Penguins operative, but it was as much our fault because we failed to take the body.

"Geno's creating opportunities, but, when you don't show up on the score sheet, he's easy to point the finger at," Crosby said correctly. "If he just puts one in, nobody's talking about him. I can get in front of the net and just as easily not put anything in. I think he's working hard for chances. It's all about what you do the next time. He's got to be confident."

Crosby's confidence isn't impaired one bit, having scored four of the five Penguins goals in this series, meaning there are about 18 Penguins who haven't put a puck past Washington's Simeon Varlamov, yet their collective shortcomings seem to have all been stapled to Malkin.

Asked for a general two-game assessment of the guy who merely led the NHL in scoring this year, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma offered this:

"I think [he's] been much like our team. At times, we've been dangerous, but we need to get better. We need to get our power play working better and we need to do a better job handling their rush. We need Geno's line to be a bigger factor in the offensive zone."

What, no hysteria?

Malkin played a much better game Monday night than he did Saturday afternoon, when he plainly was substandard, but he didn't do anything destructive until he flipped David Steckel in the offensive end for a tripping penalty with seven minutes to play in a tied game Monday night. That Ovechkin scored four seconds later was only partly attributable to the raging authority of his slap shot. It was just as accurately an illustration of some of the finer detail work the Penguins are somehow avoiding at critical times.

During the faceoff that preceded the goal the put Washington ahead to stay, Matt Cooke was clearly interfered with, preventing him from getting into Ovechkin's shooting lane.

"He's got to go down there," said Phil Bourque, the former Penguin and now the club's radio color man. "Believe me, you're talking to one of the all-time embellishers. You can't try to fight through that. You've got to know the score and the game situation."

If Cooke goes down and there's a whistle just before Ovechkin's whistler, maybe the Penguins get a power play and maybe things are different. It hasn't guaranteed anything so far.

I don't think the Penguins did anything in the first two games that can't be corrected through a change of venue, and I certainly doubt the Capitals think they have the Malkin problem solved.

"It's only two games into the series," Capitals forward Brooks Laich told the Post-Gazette's Shelly Anderson yesterday. "I think people are reading too much into that. He's very tough to play against. His work ethic is unbelievable, and you match that up with skill [and] he's a very tough player to stop. I think our [defensemen] have done a great job in making him go east-west and, whenever he gets the puck, making him move it because he wants to carry the puck all the time.

"We like to forecheck and we like to make it tough on those guys. They don't like playing in their own zone, so, if we can get the body on them and keep them hemmed in there for 15, 20 seconds at the start of a shift, now they don't have as much energy to go on offense."

All the energy in the world isn't going to change this series until the Penguins start getting it past Varlamov, who is, at 21, the most pivotal force on the ice so far. Crosby practically had to play paddle ball with him to get his hat-trick goal, and that only after it appeared Chris Kunitz nearly took Varlamov's head off with an uncalled cross-check seconds before.

"He's playing great," said Penguins forward Bill Guerin. "He's playing beyond his years."

He might be all the Capitals need to keep the Penguins from playing beyond the weekend.

Gene Collier can be reached at .


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