Two games into the series and it was evident Friday that blood had begun to boil. Max Talbot, right, battles Ottawa's Zack Smith.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
OTTAWA -- Alexei Ponikarovsky is aware of all the relevant facts and numbers.
He knows that the Penguins were willing to part with one of their finest prospects, winger Luca Caputi, to acquire him at the trade deadline because they believed he could be productive in a top-six role.
That management felt a guy who is 6 feet 4, weighs 229 pounds, has decent hands and a proven willingness to go to the net would thrive on Evgeni Malkin's left wing.
That no one -- especially Ponikarovsky -- foresaw that he would score a goal in his first game after arriving from Toronto, then get just one in the 17 that followed.
That is a slump that some segments of the team's fan base think should cost Ponikarovsky not only his spot on the No. 2 line, but in the lineup.
While there is no indication he is in immediate danger of spending game nights in street clothes, Ponikarovsky appreciates the importance of contributing to the offense.
"Believe me, I want to get a goal," he said. "Really bad."
Ponikarovsky is not a great natural goal-scorer, but has a history of putting up 20 or so in a typical season. That's the kind of secondary scoring the Penguins hope to get during their opening-round playoff series against Ottawa, which continues at 6:38 p.m. today with Game 3 at Scotiabank Place.
"There's no question we need him to score goals," said assistant coach Tony Granato, who works with the forwards. "He's not a guy who, if he doesn't score a goal for us every game, we're not going to win.
"We have plenty of different ways to win games. But he is a guy who we strongly believe is a guy who's going to contribute big goals for us as we move on."
There were some encouraging signs for the coaches in the Penguins' 2-1 victory Friday night at Mellon Arena. Ponikarovsky did not make it onto the score sheet, but did tie Sidney Crosby for the team lead with five shots on goal and was credited with three hits.
"He had more opportunities to get pucks to the net," Granato said. "He was battling for positioning much better."
That was something that, going into Game 2, Granato had cited as a significant concern about Ponikarovsky's game of late.
"He has to put himself in positions where he has that opportunity to score," Granato said. "That [involves] battling for body position, containing pucks, being more aware of sustaining the forecheck by protecting the puck.
"You don't have to try to score every shift, but you have to try to position yourself and be aware of trying to do the little things right consistently, so that when you do get those opportunities, you're ready for them."
Ponikarovsky has one goal in 25 career playoff games, but got it against the Senators in 2004. That was Ponikarovsky's most recent playoff appearance before this spring.
"We played two years in a row against them and beat them both times in Game 7," he said.
"It was an exciting time, because Toronto-Ottawa is always a big issue."
Series between the Penguins and Senators are becoming a staple of the playoff calendar, too; this is the third time in the past four years they have met in the opening round.
The Penguins, though, would prefer to get past the Senators in fewer than seven games, if possible, and having Ponikarovsky find a way to break out of his dry spell would enhance the chances of that.
"Some games, you have two opportunities, some games you have none," he said. "But every game, you try to create something for yourself to score.
"You have to play your game, you have to drive to the net. Be there, and hope for maybe a lucky bounce from the side that you can bury, or take the puck to the net."
Ponikarovsky made $2.5 million in 2009-10 and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Given the shortage of capable left wingers on the Penguins' organizational depth chart, it is easy to see how they would be interested in re-signing him --if he starts to produce the way they expected when he was brought in.
"Sometime, it's going to come," Ponikarovsky said. "I've had these stretches before, where the puck wouldn't go in the net for some reason. You just have to stay positive and keep working on it."