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March 24, 2017
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
And the Pens havenít just been losing, theyíve found new and exciting ways to humiliate themselves on a nightly basis. They lost 2-0 to Tampa Bay on home ice. They allowed the Maple Leafs to waltz out of the Igloo with a 7-3 win, offering little in the way of resistance. Florida came to town this past Saturday and spanked the Birds 6-1. Oh, the humanity.
Before the recent slide, Pittsburgh was 15-6-4 and looked every bit the Cup contender. What happened?
Granted, injuries have been a factor. Marc-Andre Fleury opened with a .929 save percentage in October, picking up right where he left off last postseason. But a groin strain put him on the shelf for a month, and heís been positively dreadful ever since, playing like a cross between Jon Casey and someone who sucks worse than Jon Casey.
The defense, already without Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, has been cobbled together most nights, with the likes of Kris Letang, Hal Gill, and Philippe Boucher missing extended time. Even Whitneyís return has failed to stem the tide. The rangy blueliner has one assist and a minus-5 in six games.
Pittsburgh has also suffered its share of sneaky injuries to role players. Tyler Kennedy rejoined the lineup against Florida after missing 14 games with a sprained knee. Kennedy, Matt Cooke, and Jordan Staal had been the teamís most consistent line over the first two months. Mike Zigomanis, whoís winning 62.9 percent of his draws, remains out with an undisclosed injury. Scoff all you want, but the Pens are 13-5-4 with Zigomanis in the lineup. That said, if youíre blaming slumps on injuries to Kennedy and Zigomanis, well, youíre an idiot.
Coach Michel Therrien hasnít been shy about blasting his players in the paper, repeatedly criticizing them for their lack of effort and refusal to stay within the team concept. Because, as always, public displays of displeasure always trump actual coaching.
Therrien and the boys canít seem to figure out how to score on the power play. The Penguins are 19th in the league with the man-advantage and have failed to convert any of their last 24 chances. Thatís hard to do, especially when you supposedly boast two of the best three players in the world.
And when you get right down to it, thatís what this prolonged slump is all about. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin arenít playing like superstars. The Washington Capitals have had a ton of injuries to key players, and theyíve got Jose freakiní Theodore in net, but they keep winning because Alexander Ovechkin is playing like the best player in the world. Make no mistake, Ovechkin is the best right now. And itís not even close.
A perfect example came during the recent loss to Florida. Trailing 4-1 in the second, Kid Crosby finally snapped and pummeled Brett McLean, energizing the Igloo crowd and giving the team its first life in weeks. On the subsequent penalty kill, Malkin jumped on a loose puck outside the Pittsburgh stripe and powered through two Florida defenders. It brought back memories of Mario Lemieux. At least until Craig Anderson stoned him.
Malkin hung his head, the Cats scored about a minute later, and the momentum was solid gone. Malkin has to bury that. And even if heís stopped, he has to feed off it and keep driving until he gets one, willing his team back into the game. Those transcendent moments of greatness are few and far between with Malkin.
Crosbyís been even worse. Sid is pointless in seven of his past 12 games. How is that even possible? Well, it could have something to do with him using 1920s equipment. Whenever I watch Crosby play, I want to hop in the flivver and motor on down to the speakeasy for some giggle juice. Curve your damn stick already!
Back at the end of November, Crosby erupted for 10 goals in nine games, and he averaged 4.1 shots per contest. But good olí Fast Adam Oates has returned in full force, posting two goals over his last 16. Worse yet, heís been averaging a mere 2.0 shots per game during that stretch. Is it any wonder the Pens have tanked?
The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack. This is Crosbyís team. If he isnít scoring, if he isnít putting pucks on net, the Penguins arenít going to win many games. Quit blaming his wingers. Quit blaming systems. This oneís on Crosby. He has to be better. Period.
The fact the current slide has lasted 14 games proves Crosby is incapable of lifting the team out on his own. While itís easy to forget, he is still a kid. He needs help. The club needs a veteran leader. Gary Roberts isnít walking through that door. Itís time for Ray Shero to make a move.
But thatís easier said than done. Itís not like there are gritty veteran leaders out there waiting to be signed. I mean, you canít find former Stanley Cup champions and 600-goal scorers sitting by the phone.
What if they let Shanahan wear a Ranger sweater during practice?