Penguins need Talbot

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Max Talbot, a winger for the Penguins when he isn't hawking cars in some of the coolest local television commercials ever made, knows the numbers next to his name are pretty weak. "But I don't play for stats," he insisted the other day. Then, after a rather uncomfortable pause and with a sad sort of smile, he added, "I know that's easy for a guy who has scored just one goal to say."

The harsh truth:

A superstar in those automobile commercials, Talbot has been anything but one on the ice this season.

One goal and five points in 27 games.

One measly goal!

It's hard to see it happening to one of the Penguins' more popular and likable players. It was especially hard to see Talbot as a healthy -- relatively speaking -- scratch for a couple of games against Philadelphia in December and another against Atlanta early this month. We're talking about a guy who was absolutely huge in the Stanley Cup season last season.

I'm going to do something right here that Talbot never will do. I'm going to blame his frustrating season on his bad left shoulder. He missed the first 21 games after surgery in July to repair multiple tears in his labrum. Talbot isn't into making excuses, but, clearly, he hasn't been right since he came back. Who knows? Maybe his injury will turn out to be like an elbow problem for a pitcher or a knee problem for a running back. Maybe he won't be really right until next season.

Not that I'm ready to write this one off for Talbot.

Not knowing his amazing history of elevating his game to extraordinary levels in the playoffs.

Surely, you remember his two goals in the Penguins' 2-1 win against Detroit in Game 7 of the Cup final in June?

"I know that's still out there and I'm looking forward to it," Talbot said of the NHL postseason. "But why wait for that to play good? There are a lot of games before then. It's nice to be known as a playoff guy, but you want to be known as a season and a playoff guy."

That's why Talbot is so eager to get back in the Penguins' lineup, perhaps for the home game Thursday night against Ottawa. He sat out his third consecutive game Monday -- a 4-2 win against the New York Rangers -- because of a groin injury. That's unfortunate. Talbot said he thought his play finally was starting to come around just about the time New York Islanders goaltender Dwayne Roloson took a whack at him with his stick in a game a week ago, causing the groin strain.

Talk about rotten luck and worse timing.

Only three games earlier, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma had reunited Talbot on a line with center Evgeni Malkin and winger Ruslan Fedotenko and given him increased ice time. "It was nice to be back with them," Talbot said. "That was our line in the playoffs [last season]. That's where I played the best hockey of my career."

It's nice to think Talbot will hook up with Malkin and Fedotenko again soon and that he'll get that next goal quickly. His only goal came Nov. 28 against the Rangers in his sixth game back after the shoulder surgery. But Talbot is right when he says he doesn't "need to have a goal and two assists for people to say I had a good night. ... When I'm on my game, I'm finishing my checks and playing good defense and making good decisions with the puck and scrapping a little and bringing some energy." All of those things were just as important to the Penguins' run to the Cup last season as his two Game 7 goals against the Red Wings. Unfortunately, all have been missing much of this season.

Again, I blame Talbot's shoulder.

"I would never say that," he said. But he did mention that he's looking forward to the two-week Olympics break, which starts Feb. 15. He said he will head "south" for five days for a little R & R, "then it's right back here to get after it."

His ongoing shoulder rehab.

The NHL trade deadline comes soon after the break -- March 3. Talbot figures to attract a lot of interest despite his lack of production. Every contending team could use a guy like him heading into the playoffs: A veteran who plays his best hockey when it means the most.

"I don't want to go anywhere," Talbot said, flatly. "If I could play my whole career here, I would. But you can't just choose that. It's not just up to me."

It's up to Penguins general manager Ray Shero, actually. Here's hoping he keeps Talbot. I can't help but think Talbot is going to do something special to salvage this season. Maybe he isn't a superstar at the moment, but it won't be a surprise if he's a superstar in April, May and maybe even into June.

Ron Cook: . First Published January 26, 2010 5:00 AM


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