Ron Cook: Highly paid stars somewhat absent



COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Penguins are paying Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang a combined $29,625,000 this season. Those players gave the team no goals in the first two games of its first-round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Forget the concerns coming into the series about the Penguins' secondary scoring, about how problematic their third and fourth lines are. Put aside their issues now with bad penalties and allowing short-handed goals. The Penguins have a much more troubling situation. Their stars hardly are playing like stars. They were lucky to split the first two games at home, winning Game 1, 4-3, Wednesday night and losing Game 2, 4-3, Saturday night in double overtime.

It's early, sure. Much can change in Game 3 tonight at Nationwide Arena. Crosby is capable of a hat trick. So is Malkin or any of the others. But, really, have you seen anything to make you feel comfortable making that prediction? You have noticed plenty of Matt Niskanen and Brian Gibbons in the series. But the stars? Not so much. It's as if they are missing in action. They're not even getting good scoring chances.

This would be a lot less worrisome if it weren't becoming such a bad trend. Crosby, Malkin, Neal and Letang didn't have a point in the four-game sweep by Boston a year ago in the Eastern Conference final and were a combined minus-20. Kunitz did have a goal, one of just two the Penguins scored in the series.

It's funny, Crosby and Malkin rank Nos. 1-2 among active NHL players in playoff scoring, Crosby at 1.29 points per game, Malkin at 1.16. Crosby has three assists against the Blue Jackets, Malkin two. That's good production for many players, but not for those two. They need to score goals for the Penguins to win.

For the most part, Crosby and Malkin have come up awfully small since 2009 when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup. Malkin was the Conn Smythe winner as postseason MVP that season with 14 goals and 36 points in 24 games. Crosby could have won the award with 15 goals and 31 points.

But there hasn't been all that much since from Crosby and Malkin. They didn't just fail against Boston a year ago. In 2012, when the Penguins were taken out by Philadelphia in six games in the first round, they badly were outplayed by Flyers star Claude Giroux. In 2010, when the Penguins lost in seven games to Montreal in the second round, they were outplayed by the Canadiens' Michael Cammalleri. Each missed the 2011 playoffs because of injury.

Columbus coach Todd Richards is taking nothing for granted with Crosby and Malkin.

"Obviously, we've talked about them as players," he said. "They're talented players and you've got to be aware of them when they're on the ice ... You try to contain them. You're not going to shut those two guys out. They're too good, too talented."

Richards has tried to match Blue Jackets pest Brandon Dubinsky against Crosby, who ran away with the NHL scoring title in the regular season. On one shift midway through the first period Saturday night, Dubinsky practically mugged Crosby in the corner, hitting him repeatedly. The Consol Energy Center crowd didn't like it, but that's how opponents have to play against Crosby if they want to be successful. They need to be physical with him.

After the Penguins took a 3-1 lead late in the first period, Richards got away from using Dubinsky against Crosby. It didn't matter. Crosby continued to be ineffective.

"I think once we got going, I saw the success of other guys against Crosby," Richards said. "It wasn't something that I needed to chase [with Dubinsky]."

This much we know for sure about Crosby and Malkin: They'll be back at it tonight, looking for that breakout game. It can't just be on the power play, which produced three goals in the first two games but gave up two short-handed goals. Crosby, Malkin and the Penguins need to do a better job five on five. They had three even-strength goals in the two games -- Columbus had just two, but Matt Calvert's goal in the second overtime won Game 2 -- and came into the playoffs ranked 12th of the NHL's 16 postseason teams in even-strength efficiency.

Crosby welcomes the challenge. He never has run from the pressure. He knows he and Malkin must do better.

"Absolutely. There are high expectations for us, for sure," Crosby said earlier this season. "It's our responsibility to find ways to score."

Tonight would be a nice time to start.

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


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