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Q: At what point is the Pens' tendency to give back points at home to inferior opponents going to catch up with them? These games against Toronto, Carolina, Minnesota, and Phoenix seem as though they could knock the Pens from being a division winner to a No. 4 seed, and into a first-round death match with a strong opponent.
-- Andrew, Pittsburgh
MOLINARI: The Penguins took a 26-12-1 record into their game at Buffalo last night and were contending for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. That's no small feat for a team that's coming off a second consecutive short summer and had to overcome the temptation to bask in the afterglow of a Stanley Cup championship.
Nonetheless, of those 12 defeats, no fewer than seven of them -- the ones you listed, as well as three against New Jersey -- were absorbed at Mellon Arena, where the Penguins' 13-7-1 record suffers by comparison to the 13-5 road mark they took into the Sabres game.
And while Phoenix has proven to be far more competitive than almost anyone anticipated when the Coyotes beat the Penguins, 3-0, back on Oct. 7, the Penguins certainly shouldn't have looked as overmatched at they did that night.
Then again, at least Phoenix would have a spot in the playoffs if the regular season ended today (which, by the way, it will not). That is more than can be said for the Wild, Hurricanes or Maple Leafs, the latter two of whom have settled to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
It's impossible to say when, or even if, the points the Penguins lost in games against those clubs will cost them, but it's hardly a reach to suggest that they could determine whether the Penguins finish first or second in the division (or conference), or even when they might have home-ice advantage during the playoffs.
Every team has some off-nights over the course of an 82-game season and the gap between the best and worst teams in the NHL isn't nearly as great as it once was, but not being able to beat bottom-feeders virtually every time they face one is something the Penguins might regret as the end of the regular season approaches.
Q: How could the Penguins let Jean-Michel Daoust go after the playoff run he had with the Baby Pens? He's now leading the Houston Aeros (of the American Hockey League) in points and goals and is tied (for first on the team) in assists.
-- George Whitehead, Edgewood, Ky.
MOLINARI: Career minor-leaguers -- and there's nothing to indicate that Daoust ever will be much more than that -- don't necessarily hang around with one team for their entire time in pro hockey, and it's not known whether Daoust or the Penguins was responsible for him leaving the organization last summer.
Daoust, who had five goals and four assists in 12 playoff games, hardly would be the first guy to switch teams because he felt another offered him a better shot at a chance to reach the NHL. (Although at 5 feet 7, 154 pounds, Daoust will have to overcome some pretty serious odds to claim a spot at this level.)
And while hardcore fans of American Hockey League teams don't necessarily like to hear it, the primary function of a farm team is to develop talent for the parent club. Daoust continues to be fairly productive (at least check, he had 10 goals and 12 assists in 32 games in the AHL, but he also is 26 years old. Not over the hill, certainly, but not a guy likely to get significantly better (let alone bigger).
Even if he could have helped the Baby Penguins this season, which is plausible, the organization might have decided that his roster spot (and ice time) would be better used on a younger player who's more of a candidate to get to the NHL eventually. Every AHL team needs a few veterans because of the intangibles (leadership, stability, etc.) they can bring, but it doesn't have to be the same group of older guys every year.