All things even, the Penguins are struggling

NEWARK, N.J. -- The Penguins own one of the scariest lines in the NHL, and one of its most productive power plays.

They also have a serious problem playing five-on-five, which is why they are just 6-6-1 going into their game against New Jersey at 7:08 tonight at the Prudential Center.

The Penguins have been outscored, 30-20, at even-strength in the first 13 games, the third-worst ratio in the league. They are averaging .67 five-on-five goals for every one they allow; only Edmonton (.64) and Florida (.66) are faring worse.

Carolina, conversely, is averaging a league-best 2.21 five-on-five goals for every one it gives up.

The Penguins have outscored only two opponents, Anaheim and Minnesota, at even-strength and matched the five-on-five production of four other clubs (Toronto, Carolina, Washington and the New York Rangers) in the first month of the season.

Think it's a coincidence the Penguins are 6-0 in those games, 0-6-1 in the rest?

The prevailing sentiment among the Penguins seems to be that their five-on-five woes are rooted mostly in the failure of many of their forwards to score as expected -- "We need more contributions," coach Michel Therrien said -- and that's not entirely unfounded, considering that their output in those situations ranks 19th in the league.

A sampling of the players struggling to find the net:

• Mark Recchi, no goals in 12 games since getting one in the season-opener.

• Jordan Staal, one in 13 games and none in the past six.

• Colby Armstrong, one in 12 and none in his past 10.

• Gary Roberts, one in 12, although he has been impeded by a respiratory ailment.

• Erik Christensen, one in 11.

• Maxime Talbot, no goals in eight after scoring four in the previous three.

After the Penguins' 3-2 loss on Long Island Saturday, Therrien spoke of their inability to get breaks of late. But a few hours earlier, he suggested that some of his forwards have been reluctant to venture into the areas where blue-collar goals are scored.

"When a player struggles offensively, you have to get the dirty goals," Therrien said. "This is how it's going to start for those guys. You just have to put the puck at the net and go there and get whacked. Eventually, you'll get rewarded. Right now, too many players are playing on the outside."

That hasn't been an issue for the Ryan Malone-Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin line, which accounted for nine of the Penguins' 14 goals during the past six games.

That's the kind of output Therrien was hoping for when he moved Malkin out of the middle and grafted him onto Crosby's wing.

"Sid's line is performing even [better] than people expected," Therrien said.

Trouble is, few teams win with regularity when relying on one unit to generate the bulk of its offense.

"It's going to be important for everybody to chip in wherever they can," forward Adam Hall said. "If we have more people scoring, other teams are going to have a tougher time matching up."

When a team with the Penguins' offensive weapons puts up poor five-on-five numbers, the immediate temptation is to blame its defensive work.

The Penguins insist that isn't the case now -- "As long as we're taking care of our own end, which we've been doing a lot better lately, the offense will come," defenseman Mark Eaton said -- but their 30 even-strength goals-against tie Los Angeles for the league's fifth-highest total.

Defenseman Sergei Gonchar believes the offensive and defensive aspects of the Penguins' performance cannot be separated.

"We have to play well defensively and from that defense, we create offense," he said. "The way we play, we have to play well defensively, then everybody is going to have a chance [to score]."

And if those players capitalize on a reasonable percentage of their opportunities, the Penguins' record almost certainly will improve. Of course, as Crosby pointed out, what matters most is the bottom line, not how the Penguins reach it.

"We need more five-on-five goals, that's for sure," he said. "But at the same time, stats are stats. If you're winning games and you're scoring on the power play, it doesn't matter how you put them in."

Dave Molinari can be reached at . First Published November 5, 2007 5:00 AM


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