Analysis: The Penguins' long, hard, winter

Part one: A season gone wrong

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Evgeni Malkin hunched over in his locker-room stall in the Air Canada Centre. His eyes were buried in the butts of his hands, and the misery seemed to radiate from him. There was a long stretch when Malkin, oblivious to the teammates, staffers and reporters around him, did not move, except to breathe. The paralysis of despair.

About 10 feet to his left, Sidney Crosby, the Penguins' captain, was undergoing his usual postgame interrogation by the media.

Crosby was offering his perspective on how the Penguins managed to allow six unanswered goals to a thoroughly unimposing Toronto opponent in what became a 6-2 defeat last Saturday, and why such a devastating loss didn't necessarily reduce the rest of the Penguins' season to a 25-game formality.

Earnest as Crosby's words were, they couldn't begin to explain what the Penguins had just gone through.

They didn't have to, though.

Malkin's body language said it all.

A confluence of circumstances and events -- some unavoidable, others self-inflicted -- has put the Penguins where they are today, staring up at an ever-shrinking window of opportunity to contend for one of the eight playoff positions in the Eastern Conference.

One year ago, they were about to go on a surge that would carry them to the Atlantic Division championship, the No. 2 seed in the East and, eventually, a berth in the Stanley Cup final.

Today, they are caught in an undertow of mediocrity that has dragged them toward the bottom of the conference, has led to a coach losing his job and could cost ownership a few million dollars if the Penguins sit out the postseason.

General manager Ray Shero has until the NHL trade deadline March 4 to adjust his lineup, and interim coach Dan Bylsma, who replaced Michel Therrien a week ago, has even less time to get his team on the kind of roll it likely will need to slip past a couple of clubs.

A look at some of the factors that have shaped their season to date:

Personnel changes

Marian Hossa was the Penguins' most prominent loss via free agency last July and, by almost any measure, their most important one.

However, personnel decisions general manager Ray Shero made during the offseason -- most rooted in salary-cap considerations -- altered the fundamental makeup of the team, removing much of the grit and toughness that had made it such a difficult group against which to play.

Taken individually, each move Shero made is easy to justify and understand.

No, Ryan Malone wasn't worth the seven-year, $31.5 million commitment Tampa Bay made to him. No, it didn't make good fiscal sense to offer more than two-year deals to Jarkko Ruutu and Adam Hall, who accepted three-year contracts from Ottawa and Tampa Bay, respectively. No, investing a seven-figure salary in Gary Roberts, on whom all the hard miles he had traveled were showing, wasn't wise.

But when those players left and Shero couldn't find adequate replacements, the Penguins lost the ability to wear down other teams with physical play. That included cycling the puck in the attacking zone, which they did so effectively last season to generate scoring chances for themselves and fatigue in their opponents.

Free-agent acquisition Matt Cooke can play a hard-nosed game, but guys like Miroslav Satan do not.

And when Satan failed to score goals the way the Penguins had hoped, his $3.5 million contract became Shero's biggest mistake of the offseason.

The shortage of grit on this team has been an issue since July, and will continue to be. If Shero doesn't address it before the trade deadline, he surely will try to via trades or free agency this summer.

Chemistry

The 2007-08 Penguins were an extraordinarily close group, and that spawned a synergy that allowed the team to become even greater than the sum of its parts.

But there is no surefire formula for that kind of esprit de corps, no guaranteed way to duplicate the magic that can happen when personalities mesh in just the right way.

The way the personalities meshed not only resulted in players genuinely playing for each other, but probably helped guys like Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang, who people close to the team identify as Therrien's favorite whipping boys, cope with the heavy-handed treatment.

The 2008-09 Penguins are, as currently constituted, a fairly ordinary team, with an ordinary chemistry. There's nothing toxic about the atmosphere in their locker room, but nothing special, either.

Injuries

The game in Toronto might well go down as the low point of the Penguins' season. That's rather ironic, because it also was the first time all season they had a chance to dress the 20 players of Therrien's choice.

Sergei Gonchar made his 2008-09 debut at the Air Canada Centre, He had missed the previous 56 games while recovering from surgery to repair a dislocated left shoulder.

His injury was the most serious, and possibly the most damaging, with which the Penguins have had to deal this season, but it hardly was the only significant one. Consider:

• Fleury, outstanding through the first quarter of the season, subsequently sat out a dozen games while recovering from a groin injury.

• Whitney, who has excellent offensive skills, had offseason foot surgery and didn't play until Dec. 23.

• Mike Zigomanis, an early-season acquisition from Phoenix whose faceoff prowess proved to be an exceptional asset, injured his shoulder Dec. 3 and eventually underwent surgery that will prevent him from playing this season.

All told, 18 players have missed a total of 236 man-games because of injuries and illness so far.

Late-game lapses

The Penguins can't be ruled out of the playoff race just yet, partly because of their knack for late-game comebacks.

Of their first 28 victories, no fewer than nine came in games in which they trailed going into the third period. Last season, they won just six times when behind at the second intermission.

But some of the astonishing comebacks they've made -- like when they scored three goals during the third period and another in overtime to defeat Tampa Bay, 4-3, Feb. 4 -- have been offset by their frequent inability to close out games they led after two periods.

The Penguins lost seven (three in regulation) of the first 21 games they led at the end of 40 minutes this season, up from five (just three in regulation) in all of 2007-08.

What's more, they've lost at least one point in no fewer than six games after allowing a tying or tie-breaking goal during the final six minutes of regulation.

If the Penguins would have found a way to hold onto points that were well within their grasp, they wouldn't looking up at most of the conference today.


Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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