Penguins make some changes, fight frustration
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Penguins coach Dan Bylsma spent a lot of a 45-minute practice Wednesday at Consol Energy Center teaching. He gathered the players around him at a dry-erase board or at center ice between each drill.
Bylsma observed some new looks he installed -- Evgeni Malkin moved to the point on the top power-play unit and had a new left winger, Dustin Jeffrey, who also moved to the point on the second power-play unit -- but he also ran practice keeping in mind the psychological side of coaching.
His players are frustrated.
They have lost three of their past four games and are 0-2 at home, including a 4-1 loss Tuesday against the New York Islanders that induced boos from the crowd. The power play is 0 for 9 over the past three games, 1 for 14 since notching two power-play goals in each of the first two games.
January is about to become February, so, in a lot hockey players' minds, the game against the New York Rangers tonight at Madison Square Garden should be coming at a time when the stretch run is beginning and a lot of things are clicking.
That's not the case. The season opened less than two weeks ago and has been shortened to 48 games because of the lockout.
The rust, lack of preseason games, the oddity of the situation are all showing.
"It's not perfect," Bylsma said. "Players are trying to be at Game 65 or Game 40, and they're not there."
They are as emotionally revved up as ever going into a game against the Atlantic Division rival Rangers at the end of January, even if that is based on what has happened in the short term.
"After [Tuesday] night's game, I don't think it matters who you play," center and team captain Sidney Crosby said.
"You should be able to get up for anything. That [game was] not a reflection of our team. Everyone should be champing at the bit to get back to playing the way we know how."
Bylsma never has shown panic or let a public tirade spill out. Instead, he reacts at that dry-erase board, explaining tweaks to a club whose core players have known his system for at least a few years but find themselves making mistakes or unable to solve opponents.
What has happened on the power play might represent the Penguins in a microcosm.
Their top unit features two of the best -- if not the best in the NHL -- offensive talents, Crosby and Malkin, a highly skilled defenseman in Kris Letang, a bulldog of a forward who is willing to insinuate himself in front of the net in Chris Kunitz and, oh, yeah, the guy who led the NHL with 18 power-play goals a year ago, James Neal.
"We try to change to find what works," said Malkin, who moved to the right point in practice after alternating with Crosby between the right half-wall and the goal-line area. In addition, Letang moved to the left point, and Neal, who had been on the left point, is now down low.
Malkin isn't glued to the traditional point area. He moves down, putting Letang at more of a center-point position as the quarterback of the unit.
"Sometimes, I play [on the] boards. Sometimes, Sid plays [on the] boards," Malkin said. "We just try to change to find what works.
"So I will stay on the point. If that doesn't work, Sid will stay on the point. We just want to do what works. It's tough. We'll see [tonight]."
The Penguins have had some trouble just getting into the offensive zone and setting up the power play, which they will have to do for any configuration of the five players to work.
The team's line combinations also have been in flux, primarily as the search continues for a full-time left winger on a line where Malkin and Neal already have solid chemistry.
Jeffrey is the latest, following Tyler Kennedy and Eric Tangradi.
"If I'm going to get thrown in on that line, I've got to be able to give those guys the puck," said Jeffrey, who played on that line at times Tuesday in his second game this season.
"They're All-Stars for a reason. They create a lot on their own. For me, to get them the puck in those situations and let them create, that's what I try to do."
Bylsma doesn't shy from switching lines during games and often does it frequently. He looks for the right combinations, the right strategy for any given moment or team.
The matchup tonight features two teams that were picked by several publications or betting houses to be the best in the Eastern Conference or to win the Stanley Cup. Each is 3-3.
The Penguins' three losses have come against teams that did not make the playoffs a year ago, but Bylsma shot down any notion that his players are overlooking anyone.
"There's not any sense that we're entitled to win just because we're the Pittsburgh Penguins," he said.
First Published January 31, 2013 12:00 am