Cook: Penguins' scoring slump must end before playoffs
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The goal was nice. It was nothing less than a gift from the hockey gods.
The 2-1 win against the Atlanta Thrashers yesterday was better. It stopped the bleeding from a two-game losing streak before it could become debilitating.
But neither could mask the fact that the Penguins are having a wicked time trying to put the puck in the net.
There are valid excuses, for sure. The schedule has been brutal. Every game it seems the Penguins are playing a team in playoff contention, which makes for high-stakes, pressure-packed hockey. Rookies Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal have never played so many games with so much travel mixed in. It's obvious it has hurt Malkin's performance -- no goals in seven games, two in 17 -- although he did show more life yesterday, twice being robbed on point-blank shots by goaltender Kari Lehtonen. Superstar Sidney Crosby played a full schedule last season, but the Penguins were also-rans and the intensity of the games was nothing. This is all new to him, as well. Then, there's Mark Recchi at the other end of the spectrum. He's 39 and appears to be feeling the full impact of March madness -- 17 games in 31 days.
But no one wants to hear excuses.
The Penguins have to find ways to get past this.
They scored just one goal in each of the past three games, excluding Staal's winner yesterday, which wasn't even a shot, yet somehow managed to take a couple of crazy bounces on its way past Lehtonen. Malkin isn't the only key player struggling. Staal has only one legitimate goal in his past eight games. Recchi has gone a staggering 16 games without a goal. Even the great Crosby had no points in the past three games -- the first time that has happened this season -- although almost all of his scoring troubles can be blamed on his wingers, not him.
The power-play numbers are just as grim. The Penguins went 0 for 5 against Atlanta and looked bad doing it. They've had no power-play goals in five of the past six games, a dismal stretch during which they are 2 for 25 with the extra man.
This is not the time of year to be having goal-scoring issues, not with the playoffs a mere fortnight-and-change away.
It's not as if coach Michel Therrien hasn't tried just about everything. From day one, he has had to deal with not having a high-quality winger -- a finisher, so to speak -- to play with Crosby, a problem that won't be solved until the offseason when general manager Ray Shero gets to do his thing with a trade or a free-agent signing. Therrien has used virtually everybody on Crosby's left wing and yesterday -- finally -- replaced Recchi as the top-line right winger. It's a delicate matter to demote a team leader, long one of the sport's great warriors, but as Therrien said, "We've never been afraid to shake things up when we're not quite satisfied."
Left winger Erik Christensen -- a much better center than winger -- and right winger Colby Armstrong played with Crosby yesterday, but that line didn't get a point.
"We've got to give those guys some time," Therrien said.
If it doesn't work out, Therrien should think about going back to left winger Nils Ekman, who was brought in by Shero last summer specifically to play with Crosby. It's true, Ekman didn't play well early -- six goals in 32 games before his elbow was dislocated in late-December. Therrien clearly isn't a big fan -- he used Ekman against Ottawa March 6, then scratched him the past nine games -- but it might be time to give Ekman another shot. It couldn't hurt, could it?
Therrien also fidgeted with his power play yesterday, dropping Malkin from the top group and replacing him with Christensen. The surprise was that he kept Recchi with that unit. Therrien's respect for a pro's pro is admirable, but the Penguins need more than Recchi is giving them in such a key spot. Crosby is too fabulous as a playmaker for a winger not to score a goal or two with him.
Since we're passing out free advice to Therrien, here's something else he should consider:
Staal on the top power play.
It's understandable why Therrien doesn't want to ask even more of Staal, who's just 18. But the kid has shown he can handle everything thrown at him. Why not give him a shot on the power play and take advantage of his size, reach and skills, all of which are formidable?
And if not Staal, how about Gary Roberts?
Just a thought.
"These are tight games," Therrien said, stressing patience again as his mostly young team goes through the playoff-drive grind for the first time, learning a little more each day.
"This is what we're going to be facing in about three weeks. We're not going to be able to score five or six goals when we get to the playoffs."
No, but the Penguins are going to have to score two or three. One won't get it done.
First Published March 25, 2007 12:00 am