WEST POINT, N.Y. -- The Penguins are hurting on the power play in preseason games.
Perhaps that's because they have spent very little time on it so far in training camp.
Or perhaps they haven't been smart with their personnel.
Forget reigning NHL scoring champion Sidney Crosby or the top rookie from last season, Evgeni Malkin. Same for accomplished point man Sergei Gonchar and newcomer Petr Sykora. Or anyone else who scored as much as one goal last season.
Clearly, one answer, overlooked until Saturday night, is to get the puck to defenseman Mark Eaton. He scored on a feed from Crosby against Detroit, notching one of the team's two power-play goals in 31 chances.
In reality, the absurdity of the idea of Eaton as a mean scoring threat raised a small howl -- and a smile from Eaton -- after practice yesterday in the locker room of Tate Rink, home of the Army hockey team.
Nine days after individual game tickets went on sale, an average of 250 tickets per game remained. The Oct. 6 home opener against Anaheim is sold out, and there are only scattered single seats for the following games:
"If I can chip one in every once in a while, that's great, but that's not my role" said Eaton, who has 16 goals in 348 regular-season and 23 playoff games with Philadelphia, Nashville and the Penguins.
"There's no mystery what my role is. I've got to be solid defensively, good in my own end, block shots."
That, and not any offensive prowess, on the power play or otherwise, is why the Penguins signed him as a free agent in July 2006.
It's what the Penguins got from him last season, just not enough of it.
Eaton missed 47 games because of a badly dislocated wrist from being sent into the boards by San Jose's Jonathan Cheechoo in November and a sprained knee in March.
So while the rest of his new team was taking the NHL by storm with a 47-point improvement over the previous season, Eaton spent more time in the doctor's office and training room than on the ice with his teammates.
"It was a year to forget last year individually," he said. "Anytime you're injured for an extended amount of time, it's not a fun thing.
"But that's in the past, and I'm looking forward to this year."
Eaton, 30, isn't flashy on or off the ice. He does his share of player appearances, but he's not sure fans readily recognize him.
"Probably not, but I don't mind that one bit," he said. "The fans here are great."
In his role, going unnoticed isn't necessarily a bad thing, although he would like to at least be visible to the extent that he's on the ice regularly for all of 2006-07.
For the first time in months, Eaton, who has been paired with rookie Kris Letang in preseason games, is completely healthy.
That's better news to the Penguins than having him come up with an uncharacteristic power-play goal.
"He had a good start last year," coach Michel Therrien said.
"He had an important role. He got hurt and had a hard time getting back to where he was when he started the season.
"It's important for him to play solid hockey, move the puck well, and stay healthy."
In 35 games, many when he was still dealing with the lingering effects of his injuries, Eaton blocked 83 shots, had a plus-minus rating of minus-6 and three assists.
And no goals.
He hasn't scored in a regular-season game since April 8, 2006, against Chicago, while he was with Nashville.
Apparently, his preseason goal doesn't count in this season's version of a little competition among defensive defensemen Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik and Eaton.
The race is on to see who scores first.
Last season, Scuderi won with the only goal from the three Feb. 16 against New Jersey -- and that one might have been tipped in by Ryan Malone.
"There might be a gentleman's bet to see who gets one this year," Eaton said.
First Published September 25, 2007 4:00 AM