The Penguins certainly didn't plan it this way.
At no point when they were getting ready for the 2007-08 season did someone stand up in a meeting and say, "You know what would really be good for this team? Being a few games under .500 in the middle of November."
It is not what they wanted. Not what they expected. Not what they were prepared for.
But if the Penguins can deal with their early-season adversity well -- and it's far too early to say whether they have or will -- it could prove to be a pivotal point in their evolution.
Losing four games in a row and six of seven before they applied a two-point tourniquet to their record with a 3-2 victory against the New York Islanders Thursday subjected the players, and their bosses, to stresses unlike any they had experienced recently.
Not, to be sure, since Michel Therrien replaced Eddie Olczyk as coach nearly two years ago. By the time Therrien took over, the Penguins were so far removed from the playoff race that only the chronically delusional believed they could become a factor.
And last season, particularly during the second half, almost everything that could go right for them, did. They got numerous bounces and breaks, and made more than a few of their own. That's what teams do when they believe in themselves the way the Penguins did.
Now, they face the challenge of surviving tough times that could sabotage their season if allowed to drag on for too long.
If the Penguins respond well -- whether it's general manager Ray Shero making the right personnel moves, Therrien choosing and managing his lineup well or the players effectively executing their roles -- their early-season troubles will become a textbook example of something that didn't kill them, and thus made them stronger.
However, even if the Penguins right themselves, and do it soon, they won't find it easy to duplicate some of the numbers they put up in 2006-07, when they reached the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Consider that, before facing the New York Rangers last night, the Penguins had to:
• Go 44-19, or its equivalent, in their final 63 games to again reach 105 points.
• Win 39 of those 63 games to match the 47 victories they earned last season.
• Score 224 goals to equal the 277 they put up a year ago. That entailed averaging 3.55 goals per game for the balance of the season; through their first 19 games, they averaged 2.79.
The Nasreddine risk factor
Alain Nasreddine's demotion to Wilkes-Barre last Tuesday didn't get a lot of attention, and that's understandable.
He's a depth defenseman at this level -- he dressed for just four of 18 games before being sent to the Baby Penguins -- and if 20-year-old Kris Letang, who replaced him on the NHL roster, plays to anywhere near his potential, he can have much more of an impact than Nasreddine.
Nonetheless, the Penguins took at least a gamble by assigning Nasreddine to the American Hockey League, because they might not be able to get him back.
Nasreddine passed through waivers unclaimed, but if the Penguins try to summon him to the NHL, he will have to clear recall waivers, and clubs that are thin on the blue line -- or simply want to add another capable body there -- might decide he's worth grabbing. Especially when the Penguins would be obliged to pick up half of what remains on his $535,000 salary.
Ideally, teams have nine or 10 defensemen in their organization who are capable of playing at the NHL level, if only for a few games, because it's unrealistic to expect a defense corps to get through a season without at least a few significant injuries.
While Nasreddine isn't a guy who's going to fill a major role or log serious minutes in this league, he has proven capable of stepping in when needed. It's safe to assume other clubs are aware of that, so if the time comes when the Penguins need him to fill a void on their blue line, no one should be shocked if his trip back to the NHL takes him to a city other than Pittsburgh.
The good and bad of being Gilles Meloche
If Marc-Andre Fleury gets his game back in synch, and there don't seem to be many people in the industry who don't believe he will, goalie coach Gilles Meloche probably will deserve at least a sliver of the credit for it.
He shouldn't expect to get it, though. Public praise isn't really part of the job desciption.
When a goalie is going well, the coach with whom he works doesn't often get recognition fo helping keep the guy's technique sharp or his positioning sound. Let that goalie stumble, though, and everything about him is subject to micro-analysis.
Nonetheless, the time and effort -- on and off the ice -- that Meloche has invested working with Fleury hasn't gone completely unappreciated. His boss certainly is aware.
"I like the experience he brings," Shero said. "I like the relationship that he has with the goaltenders, last year and this year."
Having played 18 seasons in the NHL, Meloche appreciates that a goaltender is most effective when he has faith in himself. When he doesn't just want to stop every shot, but expects to.
That's why the things he does for Fleury's psyche might be more important than the work they do on things like rebound control and puck-handling.
"Goaltending's a funny thing, in terms of confidence," Shero said. "And that's part of Gilles' job, in terms of the confidence of the goaltenders."