Collier: Penguins not over hump yet

Penguins Laraque, but not exactly roll

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Spinning free of New York Islanders defenseman Brendan Witt in the left circle, Sidney Crosby slid the biscuit into the slot with his accustomed perfection, right on the tape of ...

Wait, Georges Laraque?

Imagine Sid's horror, er, surprise, as his ponderous bear-on-skates teammate bore down on Islanders goalkeeper Rick DiPietro. Would Laraque shoot or play more to his strength and simply punch somebody in the head?

"There were a few guys there," Sid said in the winning locker room. "I was just trying to find an opening."

Translation: I didn't have time to think better of it.

By now you know that Laraque flicked Sid's pass behind DiPietro, snapped a 2-2 tie late in the second period last night, and in the process, ended a four-game Penguins losing streak.

Yeah, when you're going this bad, a little Oaf-fense never hurts.

"It wasn't a fluke goal," Crosby said of Laraque's effort. "He went top shelf, and he buried it; he did a great job. I was just so happy for him because he's got such a tough role."

It was Laraque's second goal of the year. Not his second of the season, his second of the calendar year, his last one coming Jan. 17 at Colorado.

"I always go to the net," Laraque laughed. "That must have been the longest goal drought of my career. I came close a couple of times, but close doesn't show up on the scoreboard, does it?"

Nope, and I wouldn't be so certain that this long-awaited, wildly-unanticipated Laraque goal will come close to correcting all the various maladies of these currently skittish Pens.

Yeah, Sid might have spun away from Witt to set this up, and, yes, Laraque probably left DiPietro's head spinning from the thought of fishing a winner out of his net from a guy more celebrated for his right cross than his supple wrists, but the Penguins in their real conscience know their performance last night wasn't terribly different from the ones that strung together a four-game slide into the Atlantic Division cellar.

When you need a little Laraque magic to beat the Islanders at home, you've haven't exactly repaired all systems.

There was still plenty of foolishness, much of it marking the final frenzied minutes when beleaguered goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was clinging to the semblance of restored confidence. It was Fleury who'd absorbed the majority of the blame for one of the worst Novembers for the Penguins since the Edmund Fitzgerald, and he wasn't getting a lot of help.

"It was a little bit open for a bit," Crosby allowed of Pittsburgh's defensive effort in the third period. "But I think we did a decent job. Sometimes, the best defense is just controlling the puck."

Good manners likely prevented the home team from simply putting two Islanders goals on the scoreboard before new Penguins Hall of Famer Paul Coffey dropped the ceremonial first puck last night, even if a two-goal deficit before any sign of Penguins life had become a ceremony unto itself in the past week.

New York was comfortably making its way toward the customary two-goal spot for Penguins opponents late in the first period when Sergei Gonchar, floating toward the high slot from the right circle, blasted the puck through a Jordan Staal screen into the cage behind DiPietro to tie the score at 1-1 in clear violation of recent protocol.

It was a crisp exercise in atonement for Gonchar, who had floated past Witt as the Islanders defenseman wound up for a slapper not four minutes earlier, sizzling the puck off Gonchar, New York's Mike Comrie and perhaps Pittsburgh's Mark Eaton and one or more nacho stands on its way over the left shoulder of Fleury's left shoulder.

But if DiPietro had the sense from the new 1-1 tie that something wasn't going just right on this night, well, he didn't know the half of it.

Celebrating an early indication that conditions might be favorable for the snappage of a four-game losing streak, Petr Sykora stuffed an Evgeni Malkin pass inside DiPietro's near pad for the first Penguins lead early in Period Two, but Josef Vasicek's sweeping backhander over the sprawling Fleury put the apparent life expectancy of a Penguins lead on this night at less than eight minutes.

"We always believe in Marc-Andre," said a relieved Michel Therrien in his post-game session. "Like I said before, we wanted him to work on different things to help perform his game and he showed it tonight."

But there is plenty of work for plenty of people up and down Therrien's roster between today and a legitimate return to Penguins confidence. Unless they're thinking about riding that Crosby-to-Laraque connection to the NHL playoffs.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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