Penguins are in good shape at the break

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My timing could be better, I suppose. The Penguins blew a 3-2, third-period lead Sunday at Mellon Arena and lost to the Nashville Predators, 4-3, in a shootout. Two nights earlier, they played a rotten second period at home and were beaten by the New York Rangers in overtime. Certainly, there are better moments to make a positive pronouncement about the club.

But what the heck?

I like where the Penguins are at the Olympic break and I like their chances in the final 20 games and in the playoffs.

I don't think general manager Ray Shero has to make a major trade -- even if he can under the tight salary-cap limitations.

Despite the widespread perception that the Penguins are playing lousy hockey, they are in second place in the Atlantic Division, one point behind the New Jersey Devils. They survived an early season run of injuries to every defenseman but Mark Eaton. They have received next-to-nothing so far from a key player -- Stanley Cup hero Max Talbot -- who missed the first 21 games after shoulder surgery and missed the past seven because of a groin injury.

Things could be a lot worse.

They were a lot worse last season. It was on this day a year ago that coach Dan Bylsma took over from fired Michel Therrien with the Penguins in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, five points out of a playoff spot. Superstar Sidney Crosby was begging for a scoring wing; he wasn't -- surprise, surprise -- happy playing with Miroslav Satan. Shero listened and brought in Chris Kunitz and then Bill Guerin in deals that helped the Penguins not just make the playoffs, but win the Cup.

"We had to do something last season," Shero said between the first and second period Sunday. "We didn't have the right make-up."

That is not the case this season. Sure, it would be nice to add a scoring wing to play with center Evgeni Malkin. But at what price? Ray Whitney's name frequently has been mentioned as a trade target, but it's believed the Carolina Hurricanes are asking for a fortune in return. "I'm not giving up a No. 1 draft pick and a prospect for anyone," Shero said without mentioning Whitney specifically.

This is where Talbot comes in. If he can come back healthy after the break -- all indications are that he will -- it would be like picking up a key guy in a trade. He brings energy not just on the ice, but in the room. He can play center or wing. He has a track record of playing well in the playoffs. You remember his two goals in Game 7 in Detroit in the Stanley Cup final in June, right?

"He's feeling better now, which is a good sign," Shero said. "I think he's going to be fine. It'll take some time when he comes back, but his season will be defined by the last 10 games and the playoffs."

A big, tough, physical defenseman might be a bigger need than a scoring wing. The Penguins miss salary-cap casualties Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill from last season's club. Maybe if Shero could get the right guy by trading young defenseman Alex Goligoski, it wouldn't be so bad. But I'd really hate to see him move defenseman Kris Letang despite apparent differences in their contract talks. Letang will be a restricted free agent after the season.

If there's no deal for Shero that makes sense, the status quo still is pretty good.

"I love our team," Eaton said. "We're in a fairly good position and we've yet to play our best hockey. That's encouraging to me. Every guy in here knows what it takes to be successful."

Added Guerin, "We have all of the elements. Size. Speed. Skill. Grit. Great goaltending. Young experience. Old experience. A lot of intangibles."

It's not exactly a breaking story that Eaton and Guerin have biased perspectives. They're players. In this case, though, I don't think they're wrong. A little tweaking might be in order; really, will it be that hard for Shero to find a better winger than Ruslan Fedotenko, who was demoted to the fourth line Sunday after scoring no goals in the previous 16 games. But a significant trade? It's hard for me to see the need.

There's not much separation between the teams in the Eastern Conference. If you're a half-empty person, you might say the Penguins could lose in the first round of the playoffs, which certainly is a possibility. But I feel like being a half-full guy this morning for some reason. I'm thinking the Penguins have as much chance as any team, including the Washington Capitals. Maybe the Capitals' goaltending is good enough to make a deep run in the playoffs. But maybe it isn't.

"These guys have played together and been on a run and won a Cup," Shero said of his team. "I like the chemistry. I like the character. I like the coaching. We need to play better. Our guys know that. But the elements are definitely there."




Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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