Ryan Whitney knew he had let his coach down. And he knows how Michel Therrien operates.
So Whitney was hardly surprised -- or offended -- when he read Therrien's pointed postgame quotes from Monday night blaming the defenseman for a 4-3 overtime loss at New Jersey after the Penguins blew a two-goal lead.
Whitney might just as well have had "Bomb Squad" emblazoned on his chest yesterday as he deftly defused any perceived rift between him and Therrien.
"I've been working for him for four years," Whitney said after practice at Mellon Arena. "It's tough love. It's something I can accept.
- Matchup: Penguins vs. New York Islanders, 7:38 p.m., Mellon Arena.
- TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Ty Conklin for Penguins. Rick DiPietro for Islanders.
- Penguins: Have split four games with Islanders. ... Are 3-2-2 since C Sidney Crosby got hurt. ... Are 6-11-2 vs. Atlantic, the fewest intradivisional wins in NHL.
- Islanders: Have lost five games in row and are 1-6-1 in past eight. ... Penalty killing, 85 percent, is among best in league. ... Have allowed 10 shorthanded goals, tied for most before yesterday, including league-high seven on road.
- Hidden stat: Islanders All-Star goaltender DiPietro fell below .500, 19-20-6, in 3-0 loss Tuesday to Anaheim.
"It's about improving as a player. If you have a bad game, you're going to hear about it. Whether it's behind a closed door or through [reporters], it doesn't really matter. The message is being sent. I understand where he's coming from. It's on me to play better. I'll bounce back."
Therrien, who spoke with Whitney before practice when the team convened for the first time since that game, was equally eager to keep things from escalating.
He said Whitney will be in the lineup tonight against the New York Islanders and added that no coach can expect the big, mobile defenseman to suddenly abandon his offensive skills and become a stay-at-home specialist.
"It's not given to everyone to be a goal-scorer. Some have that natural skill. It's not given to everyone to be a fighter. It's not given to everyone to be a physical presence on the ice. A coach has to accept that," Therrien said.
"Ryan Whitney is moving the puck really well. He does a lot of things that we like. He's improved on different things. He's never going to be a guy playing with a physical presence like Brooks Orpik, for example. The coach has to accept it.
"There are times when we want them to be aggressive, play a dependable game wherever you play -- forward, centerman, winger."
Whitney, in his third NHL season and coming off a summer in which he signed a six-year, $24 million contract, has seen his offensive production slip some after getting 59 points in 2006-07. He has nine goals, 24 points in 49 games and a plus-minus rating of plus-2.
Without prompting, Therrien firmly stressed that the Penguins' decision Tuesday to promote rookie defenseman Alex Goligoski from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was not an indication Whitney is in the doghouse.
"Goligoski is not here to replace Ryan Whitney," Therrien said. "[Bringing up Goligoski] was the plan when we sent [down Alain] Nasreddine [Sunday]. We like to have seven defensemen. It's just a coincidence. Believe me on that."
After the game Tuesday, Therrien lashed into Whitney, who was on the ice near the Penguins' net in the third period when David Clarkson scored the Devils' third goal to tie the score. Therrien said Whitney needed to play better in front of his net and was "not aggressive at all. It cost [us] the game."
Earlier this season, Therrien was publicly critical of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and forwards Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen. Those three and Orpik at times were sent a message by being benched for short stretches.
Whitney, apparently, will avoid being scratched.
Perhaps that's in part because he knows what he did wrong.
"When you play a game for first place [in the Atlantic Division] and you happen to not show up and play well, that's when it's most frustrating," said Whitney, whose days playing for Therrien extend to Wilkes-Barre. "I knew [Therrien] was mad in the third period, and after that goal I was sad. I figured something was coming. I read it the next morning. It wasn't too much of a surprise to me, to tell you the truth.
"He just said where he's coming from. He's a competitive guy, as am I. After that game, your blood's boiling a little bit. Everyone's upset. He had a right to be upset at me for that third goal. I'm not denying that fact. I don't really blame him."
He and Therrien agreed that while this was mostly an isolated incident, Whitney's play around his own net is something he can't overlook.
"It's just about battling in front and being more aggressive. It's pretty easy to figure that out," Whitney said. "You take a guy out [of the play]. You pick up his stick.
"I think I could improve. A lot of people could improve. My whole life I've kind of been an offensive guy, so that's something that doesn't come naturally to me. It's something I have to work on constantly, being aggressive in front of my own net."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.