Lack of offense on defense no concern for Penguins

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With the skill the Penguins have, it seems there are always players on hot streaks.

Going into the team's game tonight at Buffalo, Sidney Crosby has 11 goals, 22 points in his past 12 games. Bill Guerin has four goals, seven points in the past six games. Chris Kunitz has two goals, seven points in the past five games. Evgeni Malkin has three goals, four points the past two contests.

One thing stands out about that list. They are all forwards.

While the centers and wingers are supposed to, by the nature of their positions, pick up the bulk of the scoring, the Penguins have three defensemen with a noted flair for offense.


Today

Game: Penguins at Buffalo Sabres, 7:08 p.m. today, HSBC Arena, Buffalo, N.Y.

TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9)..

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Ryan Miller for Sabres. Penguins: Are 12-5 in Buffalo since start of 1999-2000. ... Are 8-3 vs. Northeast Division. ... Were tied for most road wins, 13, through yesterday.

Sabres: Penalty killing at home, 88.6 percent, among best in NHL. ... One of just six teams, through yesterday, without short-handed goal at home. ... D Tyler Meyers leads all rookies with 17 assists.

Hidden stat: Penguins C Sidney Crosby has 47 points. He has reached 50 before the end of December each of the past three seasons.


The puck-handling and shooting skill of Sergei Gonchar, Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang is pronounced enough that coach Dan Bylsma configures his defensive pairings so that those three skate regularly with a more defensive defenseman.

"We're three guys who love to join the play and go on the rush," Letang said yesterday after practice at Mellon Arena.

With the Penguins going 14-5-1 since mid-November, it's easy to overlook the slide in goals from those three:

• Gonchar has five goals on the season but just one in the past seven games -- although he has seven assists in that period.

• Goligoski scored six goals in the first 15 games but has no goals, five points in his past 14 games. The latter stretch was interrupted by two injuries. He had an assist Sunday in a 4-3 loss to Toronto, his first point in six games.

• Letang's only goal in his 30 games came Nov. 3. He has one point, an assist, in the past eight games, no points in four games.

That has got to be a concern, right?

"No, I don't think so," said Gonchar, who had his string of 50-point seasons halted last season because of shoulder surgery and now has 23 points in 27 games.

"As long as we're winning, I don't think we have to worry about it."

Goligoski -- who along with Kunitz did not practice, although both are expected to play tonight -- and Letang have been quieter than Gonchar lately.

Letang is concentrating on priorities and patience.

"The most important thing is that we play good defensively," he said. "Sometimes it's going to be the forwards [who score], and sometimes it's going to be the defensemen."

Three of the Penguins' other defensemen have chipped in with what might be described as seven bonus goals -- three from Mark Eaton, three from seventh defenseman Martin Skoula, who only plays when someone is hurt, and one from Jay McKee.

Combine those with the 12 from Gonchar, Goligoski and Letang and the Penguins are getting about 15 percent of their 127 goals from defensemen, although that has tailed off the past several weeks.

Since Skoula had one of the biggest nights of his career with two goals Nov. 21 in a 3-2 victory against Atlanta, the defensemen have accounted for four of the team's 51 goals.

Gonchar can think of one reason -- injuries that have knocked each of the top six defensemen out for a time.

"Guys were injured and sometimes you need some time to get back on track," he said. "That takes awhile. And we've all been injured.

"But I'm thinking we shouldn't be concerned about it."

Coach Dan Bylsma noted that Goligoski and Letang, who each spent time on the point on the top power-play unit, have been replaced there in recent games by Malkin, which could account for a lower production total from the defensemen.

Bylsma also said the team has to be functioning at a top level within his aggressive system for the defensemen to get good scoring chances, so statistics are of secondary concern.

"You look at our play and how we want to play, and those are the things that we're concerned about, not necessarily the numbers that are easy to pull up," he said. "In the last while, we haven't done as good a job at getting to our game, which allows our defense to be in the rush and be up in the play and be in the offensive zone. As a result, you haven't seen contributions from the blue line."

Letang, who had 10 goals last season and another four in the playoff run to the Stanley Cup, agreed that goals will be the end result when everything else is going well.

"Obviously, I want better production," he said. "But my focus first will be on the defensive game. We want to make sure we play good in our [defensive] zone and we have a good transition game.

"After that, things will take care of themselves. It's going to come. I'm not worried about the defensive corps."


For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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