Q: As we await the return of Marian Hossa and Gary Roberts, and now Max Talbot and Petr Sykora, it would seem the Penguins are running low on time to get this group together, developing chemistry. How many games would you think they need to play together before the regular season ends in order for them to enter the playoffs as a "team," instead of just a collection of great players?
Eric Thomas, Charlotte, N.C.
MOLINARI: There is no firm formula for how long a group must be together before it can reasonably be expected to jell, but the real issue is more about individual units -- forward lines, defense pairings, power-play groupings, etc. -- meshing than it is about the team as a whole.
Defense shouldn't be a major issue, although things could get a bit awkward when Rob Scuderi returns from the surgery to repair his broken finger. Until/unless the Penguins have another injury on their blue line, Scuderi will give them seven defenseman, which means one would be the odd-man-out on most nights.
Things get more dicey up front, where it must be determined if Sidney Crosby and Marian Hossa have complementary games, as well as whether Pascal Dupuis is the best choice to work on the left side with them. Coach Michel Therrien also will have to figure out where Roberts, who hasn't played since Dec. 29, fits in, and whether he should clear a spot for Adam Hall if he's able to return from sports hernia surgery.
But the power play is where it could get really interesting. No one questions that the Penguins have exceptional talent up front, but settling on the best way to configure it should keep Therrien and his staff busy. Therrien acknowledged a few days ago that he hasn't decided whether to concentrate that talent in one unit, or spread it over two roughly equal ones, let alone exactly which players should be deployed with which others.
If he opts to go with two groups of power-play forwards -- say, Jordan Staal-Crosby-Hossa and Ryan Malone-Evgeni Malkin-Sykora -- Therrien might consider whether separating his top set of point men, Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, might maximize the effectiveness of both units. And should Therrien decide, for example, that Whitney could bring out the best in Crosby's group, would he consider shifting Whitney to the right point and pairing him with Kris Letang, so that both would have the ability to one-time passes from his partner?
Clearly, the Penguins have a lot of personnel possibilities to contemplate in coming days and weeks. And it's reasonable to believe decisions will have to be made before the regular season is down to its final few days, so that the lines and pairings and special-teams units will have an opportunity to mesh. Or to be reconfigured if they don't.
Q: I have never understood why a player may get tossed from the faceoff area. How does the official determine when to have another take his place?
Bob Habel, Torrance, Calif.
MOLINARI: This subject has been extremely popular with Q&A readers lately, for reasons that are not entirely clear to the moderator. Or even a little bit clear, for that matter.
Anyway, there are two basic things that can get a player tossed from a faceoff: Failing to position himself in accordance with the rules, which basically dictate where his skates can be before the puck is dropped, and failing to have the blade of his stick in the designated area of the dot (which obviously includes the "false starts" that get players thrown out.)
By the way, if a player does something that leads to him being tossed out of a faceoff, the violation is noted and, if his team is guilty of another on the same faceoff, it is supposed to be assessed a delay-of-game minor. Players not directly involved in the faceoff can be cited for a violation, too, for reasons ranging from encroaching on the perimeter of the faceoff circle to making contact with an opponent before the puck is dropped.