Penguins walking a fine line
Aside from the members of the No. 1 line, most Penguins centers and wingers have been making only infrequent appearances on the scoresheet
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The Penguins' No. 1 line, with Evgeni Malkin between Chris Kunitz and James Neal, just might be the best in the NHL these days.
And the Penguins have a six-game winning streak to prove it.
Malkin enters the game tonight in St. Louis as the league's leading scorer, and just about every time he goes over the boards, he enhances the contention of those who believe he is destined to be honored as its most valuable player this season.
Neal, meanwhile, is maturing into one of the game's premier trigger-men. He already has 26 goals -- that's one shy of his personal-best, set two seasons ago in Dallas -- and seems to be launching a puck past a goaltender just about every time Malkin puts one on his stick.
- Matchup: Penguins at St. Louis Blues, 8:08 p.m. today, Scottrade Center.
- TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Brian Elliott for Blues.
- Penguins: Lost to Blues, 3-2, in overtime Nov. 23 at Consol Energy Center. ... RW James Neal has team-high 32 penalty minutes in away games. ... Have outscored opponents, 7-3, in first period during six-game winning streak.
- Blue: Own NHL's best home record, 21-3-3. ... Sixteen of team's top 17 scorers had positive plus-minus ratings before playing Monday night in Detroit. ... Are 9-0-1 against Eastern Conference opponents.
- Hidden stat: Penguins are 10-1 when Pascal Dupuis scores a goal.
And even though Kunitz doesn't have stats quite as gaudy as those of his linemates, his ability to handle many of the group's blue-collar duties effectively is a major component in its success.
Malkin and his linemates have been almost unstoppable during the past couple of weeks, and the Penguins have to be thrilled about that, because it isn't true of most of their other forwards.
Fact is, aside from the members of the No. 1 line, most Penguins centers and wingers have been making only infrequent appearances on the scoresheet. To wit:
• Pascal Dupuis, no goals and two assists in 12 games.
• Richard Park, two goals and no assists in 10 games.
• Dustin Jeffrey, two goals and one assist in seven games. (With all of those points coming Friday against Montreal.)
• Matt Cooke, no goals and two assists in 18 games.
• Eric Tangradi, no points in 12 games.
• Steve Sullivan, one goal and two assists in 12 games.
• Craig Adams, no goals and two assists in 21 games.
• Arron Asham (out with an apparent concussion), no points in nine games.
• Joe Vitale, one goal and one assist in 13 games.
• Tyler Kennedy, three goals and nine assists in 25 games.
Most of those players, of course, are not counted on for more than an occasional contribution but even so, the Penguins offense has been strikingly unbalanced lately.
"We certainly know that we can't count on two people [Malkin and Neal] to score goals and everyone else tread water," coach Dan Bylsma said Monday.
He noted, though, that the Penguins have gotten timely goals from some of those players -- such as Park in Tampa and New York, and Jeffrey's big night against the Canadiens -- and pointed out that offensive output isn't the only significant factor when evaluating a player's performance.
"There are some guys who haven't scored some goals, but are doing good things," he said, adding that "some of those guys also need to do a better job of being in the areas to score goals."
One he'd like to get more scoring from presumably is Sullivan, who played alongside Malkin for much of the season and who figured to be good for about 20 goals this season if he was able to remain healthy.
Staying in the lineup hasn't been a problem -- Sullivan is just one of six Penguins to appear in all 48 games so far -- but he has only eight goals.
Part of the problem might be that Sullivan has been too willing to share the puck; the Penguins' 4-3 overtime victory Sunday against Washington marked the seventh time in the past eight games that he recorded only one shot on goal.
The adage that you don't score on 100 percent of the shots you don't take certainly seems to apply here.
"I've never been a guy for a [high] shot total, but you can't score if you don't shoot," Sullivan said. "I definitely have to start shooting more."
There was, with the benefit of hindsight, one particular sequence in the Capitals game in which Sullivan wished he'd put the puck on net.
He and Park had a two-on-one break in the second period, and Sullivan tried to feed the puck to him. The pass was broken up, play went the other way and Washington's Alexander Semin capitalized on a rebound a few seconds later.
"If the pass gets through, it's a great play and it's an empty-netter for [Park]," Sullivan said. "But it doesn't get through and they come back and score."
Fortunately for the Penguins, Neal later would score his second of the game, and Malkin would get the winner in overtime.
That sort of thing has happened a lot lately. It won't always be the case, though, and if the Penguins expect to continue climbing the Eastern Conference standings, they likely will need to diversify their offense.
"We have to give them secondary support," Sullivan said. "If they do cool down, for us to win, we'll need some more scoring from other people."
First Published January 24, 2012 12:00 am