Return of Penguins' Crosby has 'a long ways to go'
SUNRISE, Fla. -- The answer to one of the Penguins' most pressing needs was right there on the ice with them Friday at BankAtlantic Center.
Sidney Crosby centered the top line with wingers James Neal and Chris Kunitz. He flew up and down the ice. The puck danced on his blade.
Yet Crosby and the more than point-and-a-half a game he represents will be of no help to the goal-challenged Penguins against Florida tonight or for an unknown period of time. He was OK'd to join his teammates for practice -- just his second time doing that since he was diagnosed with a concussion Jan. 6 and the first time in something other than a game-day skate -- only because it happened to be structured to feature non-contact drills.
Game: Penguins at Florida Panthers, 7:08 p.m. today, BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise, Fla.
TV, radio, Internet: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9), penguins.nhl.com.
Probable goaltenders: Brent Johnson for Penguins. Scott Clemmensen for Panthers.
Penguins: Have lost two in row after four-game winning streak. ... Are 0-19-1 when trailing entering third period. ... Are one of 10 teams below 50 percent on faceoffs, 49.3 percent.
Panthers: Have lost seven games in row, longest streak of season. ... One of better faceoff teams at 51.8 percent. ... Rank among league's worst in offense with 2.36 goals a game.
Of note: Penguins have a chance to sweep season series vs. Florida for first time.
"Still a long ways to go," Crosby said afterward.
That could be said of the Penguins offense, too.
After logging 17 goals over four games the middle part of last month, the Penguins have scored just eight over the ensuing five games -- and only five of those have come in regulation; the other three represent shootout wins.
"We have to create chances and, usually, goals," said Kunitz, alluding to the fact that the Penguins had 37 shots on goal plus 22 that were blocked and another 13 that missed the net Thursday in a 2-1 loss at Tampa Bay.
Only a fraction of those, however, could be classified as prime scoring chances.
Crosby, who led the NHL with 66 points in 41 games when he got hurt, doesn't have to be in the lineup to diagnose the situation. The Penguins, he said, have gotten away lately from the art of crashing the crease and rooting around for rebounds.
"I think that's kind of been our identity, even when we were scoring all those goals," he said. "We were scoring a lot of them because of that -- we were driving the net and getting second opportunities. You need to have that consistency throughout the season because you can't just turn a switch on when you get to the playoffs or get to times like this [late in the season]."
He gets no argument from his teammates.
They realize production is bound to dip some without Crosby and center Evgeni Malkin, who had season-ending knee surgery in February, but they don't see any reason those in the lineup can't create the type of traffic and shots that produce enough goals to win.
"Guys just have got to get to the net a little more," winger Tyler Kennedy said. "This time of year, you're winning by one or two goals. You've got to get a couple of 'greasy' ones. That's part of hockey."
Kennedy has done a better than fair job, scoring 11 goals in 26 games since Malkin got hurt. He has expanded his range -- or maybe condensed it -- by shooting from various spots, including in tight, rather than just flying down the wing and launching long shots.
It also takes players willing to screen goaltenders and create some havoc around the crease.
"We need to be better at getting traffic in front," said forward Max Talbot. "I think we've been lacking that the last few games. That's something we talked about. We need to get back to that. Especially when you're missing your firepower, your top guys. Guys like me and everybody else need to get more in front of the net.
"You look at the playoffs, that's the type of goal that's usually scored."
Tampa Bay's Steve Downie got the first goal Thursday that way. That one coupled with one later in the first period by Martin St. Louis seemed to nearly put the game out of reach.
"If we could have [converted a couple of chances] early on, we would have been more in the game," Kunitz said. "We applied pressure, but, sometimes, teams get tight and you can't penetrate through their system.
"Take out some of the best players in the league [from the lineup], and it hurts us, but, when we are feeling good and do things right early on and are successful, we have a tendency to score more goals in that game. But, if we get behind and are fighting it a little bit later, we aren't as good offensively as we want to be."
That goes double, maybe triple, on the power play, where the Penguins are riding an 0-for-14 drought over their past four games. That extends to 1 for 27 over eight games, 2 for 50 over 14 and 3 for 64 over 19. They haven't scored a power-play goal in successive games since mid-February and had fallen to 25th in the NHL with a conversion rate of 15.4 percent.
None of that offensive backsliding bodes well for the playoffs beginning in less than two weeks, but the Penguins are resolute.
"We know what we can do," Kunitz said. "I think we've proven it to each other."
• Game: Penguins at Panthers, 7:08 p.m.
• TV: Root Sports.
Date Opponent Time TV
4/8 Islanders 7:00 ROOT
4/10 Thrashers 3:00 ROOT
Home games in bold