Downward Spiral Continues, Therrien at Risk

The Pittsburgh Penguins continued their downward spiral on Saturday afternoon as they lost 5-3 in a matinee to the Colorado Avalanche in the Mile-High city.  The Penguins have won just 1-game in their last 8, leaving many wondering what it will take to get them out of their on-going funk.  In their last 20-games, the Penguins have gone 6-13-1 and picked up just 13-of-40 possible points.  Coming on the heels of posting one of their best starts in many seasons, the abysmal backslide seems almost incomprehensible.  Some have pointed to the rash of injuries and resulting roster challenges, while others have said that every opponent brings their “A” game when they match up against Pittsburgh.  Unfortunately, while these observations may be true, they are just excuses used to explain what appears to be a lack of focus, desire, effort and execution.  A great team finds ways to pull together at every level and work through adversity to remain competitive for every game.   

A number of things have become fairly evident over the last 20-games:

First, I am convinced that while Miroslav Satan is a generally good player, he is a bad fit for the Crosby line and more so a bad fit for this team.  In 42-games this season, Miroslav Satan has contributed 26-points (12G, 14A) in 42-games.  He has only managed 2-points in the last 10-games, however, and has finally been demoted from the top line.  The problem with Satan is that he is streaky (as advertised), and his inconsistency is punctuated by his incredibly passive style of play.  He appears unable and/or unwilling to get his nose dirty and create the havoc that needs to be created against uber-defensively-minded opponents who are trying to shut down one of the league’s marquee players.  His slow, floating style of play does not complement Crosby’s at all, and it has taken the coach too long to recognize it. 

Second, over the stretch of the past month the Penguins’ defense has at times become lazy and forgotten how to play smart defensive hockey.  We have witnessed the Penguins’ defense often stop skating and start watching the puck and the opponent in their own end.  They then get caught flat-footed and miss an assignment that exposes the goaltender and leads to a goal.  While I would expect to see this occasionally from the young rookie/sophomore defensemen, it is inexcusable when it happens to the more seasoned defensemen.  They need to work harder to tie up their opponents in front of the net and keep the traffic lanes clear.  Also, when given opportunities for a smart clear, they often commit a lazy pass to the open ice or up the wall that never reaches the blue-line before getting picked off and leads to scoring chances and goals against.  The lack of good, consistent defensive coverage has in part contributed to the inconsistent goal-tending that the team has gotten from Marc-Andre Fleury and Dany Sabourin. 

Third, the Penguins’ offense needs to start chipping the pucks along the walls and into the offensive zone while driving to the net down the center of the ice to push back the defense.  They have the speed and talent down the center to be effective.  For too long over this dismal stretch, we have watched the Penguins employ the old dump-and-chase.  Unfortunately, the dump-and-chase is only effective if you skate you butt off and win the chase-race.  If not, you end up just chasing the puck back down the ice.  There is so little puck support breaking into the offensive zone that we often see Evgeni Malkin trying to skate through 3-4 opponents at the blue line only to have the puck stripped away and turned back down the ice.  When the Penguins do manage to get possession in the offensive zone, they often end up playing a tremendous amount of perimeter keep-away, only to see it end in a bad pass attempt turnover and an up-ice rush.  They rarely get traffic and screens set up in front of the goaltender, and they look for the “unexpected pass” play so often that it is now absolutely expected and easily defended against.  Set up traffic in front, fire the puck on net, feed on rebounds and score….especially on the power-play.  Don’t wait for a clear shot at the net when the goaltender has a clear view of the shooter.  He will stop it almost every time. 

These are just a few observations and they can all be addressed in fairly short order within the current roster, with the possible exception of Miroslav Satan who may need to be moved sooner than later.  The coaching staff can fix this if the players buy-in and are responsive.  There-in, however,  may lie the ultimate reason why this funk has continued for so long.  Being on the outside looking in, one has to wonder if the coaching staff still has the ability to instruct, motivate and inspire the players.  Despite closed door player meetings and public comments made by the coach, the continuing inconsistent play and consistently poor results lends to the growing suspicion that the changes will soon come to this organization.  My bets are on a new coaching staff.  While Coach Therrien has done a fine job with this team over the past couple years, one has to wonder if his hand has been played…..as happened when he coached the Canadiens, one has to wonder if his style that was once considered an inspiration to the players has now become a liability, if for no other reason than it is being tuned out by the players.   This was the theory posed by SportsLine writer Wes Goldstein in January 2003when reporting on Therrien’s firing from the Canadiens head coaching position. 

I think we are all looking for answers, but more importantly action from the General Manager.  It is inconceivable to have two of the leagues’ top scorers, and yet have an incurable inability to win games.

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