Ring the alarm ... maybe

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All those alarmists -- the ones who were screaming about the inadequacies of the Penguins and demanding change -- well, it looks like they might have a point.

All those cool, composed people who were preaching patience and pointing out the season was young and the team still had an outstanding level of talent, well, you know what they say about those who keep their heads while all those around them are losing theirs: They don't understand the situation.

The situation is not dire. It is early, five games into an 82-game season. But nor is the play of the Penguins to be casually dismissed.

There is reason to be concerned.

They blew a three-goal lead at Mellon Arena last night to lose to the Washington Capitals, 4-3.

The Capitals were supposed to be what the Penguins needed. They have long been a punching bag for the Penguins. It was hoped they'd be the antidote for all that ailed the team. And for the better part of two periods, the Capitals proved to be just that. The Penguins led, 2-0, after one period and 3-0 late in the second.

No one thought much of it when the Capitals' Tomas Fleischmann scored with about five minutes remaining in the second period. But the momentum of the game was changing. When Alexander Semin scored early in the third period, it was time to worry. But the Penguins still looked good on their home ice and with Marc-Andre Fleury in net. No one expected the Washington onslaught that was soon to come.

The Capitals scored two more times in the third period -- goals by Michael Nylander and Boyd Gordon -- and sent the Penguins to a stunning defeat in front of a sellout crowd that could scarcely believe what it was seeing.

"Unacceptable," said a seething coach Michel Therrien of the team's effort in the final 20 minutes.

"We lost because we stopped working in the third period."

Maybe the Penguins thought they were playing the old Capitals, the team they had so long dominated -- going 10-1-1 against them in the previous 12 games -- and not the young, skilled unit that has been drawing praise from all over the league.

No less an authority than NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, a former Penguins assistant coach, told The Washington Post this:

"This team is loaded. Washington is one of the few teams in the league that can rival Pittsburgh in the way of young star power."

Even Sidney Crosby gave the Capitals a nod.

"They have a deep team, a lot of skill, a lot of guys who can beat you. They've really established themselves as a hard-working team, a competitive team. We have a similar look, with some young guys who have done well early on."

They had all that and more as they took the game to the Penguins and left them embarrassed and beaten in a shocking third period.

What was alarming about the defeat was that the Capitals didn't get a point from Alex Ovechkin, the best goal-scorer in the NHL. Ovechkin got five shots on goal, only two in the first two periods.

What was even more alarming was that the Penguins collapsed in the third period, being outshot, 21-6, and that after dominating the Capitals in the first two periods, outshooting them, 20-9.

What was most alarming was a statistic pointed out by Therrien. "This is the fourth game in a row we haven't scored a goal five-on-five. They're not paying the price to score goals."

Actually, the Penguins have scored one five-on-five goal in the past four games, but that's not much to brag about, and Therrien's point remains on the mark.

The major positive to come out of the game was the team's work on the power play. All three of their goals came that way, with the third coming when they had a two-man advantage.

Crosby might have won the matchup of the NHL's two best offensive players against Ovechkin, but it was scant consolation. He contributed two assists but remains without a goal for the season.

It has to be of some concern that Crosby hasn't scored a goal. But the good side of that problem is he's going to score. Sidney Crosby hasn't forgotten how to score goals.

Five NHL games are not the equivalent of one NFL game. No one of sound judgment would be predicting a dire fate for the Steelers late in the fourth quarter of their first game and no one should be doing the same thing about the Penguins.

Clearly, though, there is work to be done. The Penguins play the Toronto Maple Leafs tomorrow night at Mellon Arena. Neither a win nor a goal by Crosby is necessary to salvage the season. But one or both -- preferably both -- would put a lot of anxious people at ease.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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