Ron Cook: Penguins get it; bad habits must go

Conventional wisdom says the first step to correcting a problem is to admit having one. The Penguins, despite their astonishing 33-12-2 record and runaway lead in the NHL's Metropolitan Division, tend to play unfocused, undisciplined hockey at times. They know it and freely acknowledge it. Hey, it's a start.

A lot of teams would have been thrilled to take five out of six points last week on a western Canada swing. Not the Penguins, who are fortunate to have strong leadership in their room. After a 4-3 overtime loss Friday night in Edmonton, defenseman Rob Scuderi publicly chastised his teammates for looking to make highlight-reel plays instead of playing sound defensive hockey with a lead. Since then, defenseman Brooks Orpik, captain Sidney Crosby and coach Dan Bylsma have made similar observations.

"All the guys in the locker room see it, know it, say it," Scuderi said Monday after practice. "You've got to play fundamental. Just because we have high-end skill doesn't mean we have to play a high-risk game. Your skill is there to take advantage of situations when they are there to take. I think we just have to do a better job of realizing when they're there and when they're not. There's definitely a time when you have to make a percentage play."

It's called sound situational hockey.

The Penguins blew a 2-0 lead in Vancouver a week ago and were fortunate to win, 5-4, in a shootout after getting late goals in regulation from Kris Letang and Crosby. They blew 2-0 and 3-2 leads in Edmonton, losing, 4-3, in overtime.

It's OK to win a game 2-0 or 3-1. Orpik has been saying that for years. When the Penguins have a 2-0 lead, they don't have to take foolish risks to try to make it 3-0.

"It's just a matter of bearing down and realizing the type of game we have to play if we want to be successful, not just in the regular season, but in the postseason," Scuderi said.

The Penguins do just fine in the regular season. They lead their division by 17 points. They are on top of the Eastern Conference by eight points. Only Anaheim and Chicago have more than their 68 points.

But bad habits can carry over.

"When you're thinking about the end game, you want to build toward something bigger," Scuderi said. "You don't want to lose games, but I'd rather lose a game playing the right way than take a chance playing the wrong way and having it go 50-50. You know, in the end, if you keep playing that [right] way, you're going to get the overwhelming majority of victories."

It's easy to think Scuderi's comments Friday night were directed at Letang and Evgeni Malkin. Scuderi denied that Monday. "I wasn't trying to burn any one of my teammates individually." I believe him.

But Malkin and Letang need to follow Scuderi's advice. Both have tremendous skill. Both tend to take chances and play a high-reward, high-risk game. Both have to be smarter situationally. Instead of always trying to make a spectacular cross-ice pass or skate through everyone on the ice, there are times when it's OK to make a safe chip up the boards. That's not handcuffing Malkin or Letang. They're so talented their scoring chances still will come. It's just a matter of playing smart.

The message appeared to get through to all of the Penguins Saturday night in Calgary. They played a much tighter game and won, 2-1.

"I thought our forwards did a fantastic job of keeping the play moving north," Scuderi said. "If you don't have a play sometimes, you just got to move the zone and move it ahead."

Bylsma said he had no problem with Scuderi being so outspoken.

"He was accurate. He was definitely accurate with his reference to how we played with the puck and how we executed decision-making with the puck."

Bylsma is lucky to have Scuderi. He's lucky to have Orpik. He's lucky to have Crosby, one of the great captains in the game. They are strong leaders. They won't let their teammates slide despite the team's terrific record.

"I think we've always kind of evaluated ourselves on how we play, and not necessarily just results," Crosby told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Shelly Anderson over the weekend. "I think we feel like we've still got more to give and can get better."

That's a wonderful attitude. No, it doesn't guarantee a Stanley Cup. But the Penguins won't win without it.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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