Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek has recorded two assists in 11 games this season.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Penguins have a pretty good idea of what Zbynek Michalek can do and what he can mean to this team.
If not, they wouldn't have given him a five-year contract worth $20 million to lure him here from Phoenix back in July.
What they don't know is when Michalek, one of many Penguins players who have not performed to expectations during the first quarter of the 2010-11 season, will begin to play consistently to his potential.
Coach Dan Bylsma, however, suggested Thursday that it might not take much longer.
"I think that in another five games -- not that I don't expect the next five games to be pretty good for him -- he's not far away from settling in," Bylsma said.
Game: Carolina Hurricanes at Penguins, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh; WXDX-FM (105.9).
Goaltending:Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Cam Ward for Hurricanes.
Penguins: Beat Hurricanes, 3-0, at RBC Center Oct. 30. ... LW Matt Cooke is tied for second in NHL with two short-handed goals. ... Have alllowed a league-low average of 26.8 shots per game.
Hurricanes: Have won six of past 10 games here. ... C Eric Staal has five goals, eight assists in the past five games. ... Have been outscored, 27-18, during third period.
Of note: Hurricanes are 7-0 when scoring first goal of game, 2-9 when allowing it.
Michalek might have been able to do that before now if he hadn't injured a shoulder Oct. 11 in the third game of the regular season. He already was trying to get acclimated to a new team, city and system when he got hurt, and having to sit out nine games while recovering significantly delayed the process.
"He's behind where he'd liked to have been, conditioning-wise and game-wise," Bylsma said. "He doesn't look like he's felt comfortable."
Even before he was injured, Michalek's transition from the Southwest to southwestern Pennsylvania was more challenging than he'd anticipated.
"[Adapting] wasn't easy," Michalek said. "It was maybe even harder than I expected and made even tougher because I got hurt at the beginning of the season. That was something that really hurt me."
What really stung, though, was his gaffe Monday during overtime of the Penguins' 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers, when he lost his balance and fell to the ice, setting up the odd-man break that resulted in the winning goal.
That sequence cost his team a point in the standings but provided the impetus for Michalek's best performance as a Penguin in their 3-1 victory Wednesday against Vancouver. He got work against the Canucks' No. 1 line as well as their highly effective power play and responded well.
"I let the team down a little bit when I fell and [the Rangers] scored," Michalek said. "I wanted to have a good game and get on the right track again.
"The [previous] few games, I'd felt my game was getting better, going in the right direction. I wanted to make sure one thing didn't lead me down the wrong track again."
Truth be told, though, Michalek hasn't had his game entirely on track all season.
He enters the Penguins' game against Carolina at 7:08 tonight at Consol Energy Center with no goals and two assists in 11 games. And, while he isn't going to put up points the way, say, Kris Letang does, Michalek is capable of showing up on the score sheet a little more often than he has so far.
"He ... has a heavy shot and can make a good first pass," Bylsma said.
Michalek's forte, however, is playing in his own end, as was evident against the Canucks.
It's worth pointing out that he has blocked 27 shots, two fewer than fellow defensemen Paul Martin and Alex Goligoski, who are tied for the team lead. And who, of course, have dressed for all 20 games or nearly twice as many as Michalek.
Michalek doesn't routinely punish opponents with his 6-foot- 2, 210-pound frame -- he is credited with just seven hits this season -- but it does help him to take up space and tie up opponents in the defensive zone.
His size and reach are particularly handy when the Penguins are short-handed. Michalek is averaging three minutes, eight seconds of penalty-killing time per game, more than any defenseman on the team except Brooks Orpik. He also averages more than a minute per game of power-play time.
"Throughout my career, I've been a pretty solid player," Michalek said. "Coaches could rely on me in every situation. I want to be that type of player."
The Penguins are expecting nothing less. They made a major investment in Michalek during the off-season and believe he'll give them a good return on it.
"He's a guy who desperately wants to help us be a good team, who desperately wants to come here and do well," Bylsma said.
Michalek realizes that, for any number of reasons, that hasn't happened much of the time in 2010-11, but he appears convinced he is on the cusp of becoming the contributor the Penguins were seeking.
"I'm right there," he said. "I'm close. I feel comfortable in the system and comfortable with my teammates. There are no excuses now. It's all up to me."