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Puck Talk with Popchock: Focus, Not Ability, Hinders Pens

Boston celebrates third period goal Monday

Zdeno Chara and his Bruin teammates celebrate a third period goal at Consol Energy Center Monday, part of yet another third-period collapse by the Pens. (Courtesy of Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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By Matt Popchock

With or without Sidney Crosby, what happened at the Consol Energy Center in the waning moments of the third period Monday night was a travesty.  That’s a word I’ve had to use too often for my liking to describe the Penguins’ efforts this season, particularly on home ice.

Earlier today Brooks Orpik appeared on The Fan Morning Show (weekdays 5:40-10:00 a.m. on 93.7 The Fan) and spoke of this team’s strange and, to a certain extent, alarming inability to put opponents away on certain nights.  I’m no yinzer who’s going to take the Fort Pitt Bridge over one or two games in the middle of January, but when one of the most blunt and well-spoken players on the team says something isn’t right, I think it behooves us and his teammates to listen.

Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice…well, you know how it goes.  Point is, Monday was the second time the Pens have been fooled by the same team, fooled into thinking the game was over simply because they had outplayed the Bruins for the better part of it, or at least that’s what the scoreboard at CEC would have had you believe.  Unfortunately there was another 3:30 left in the game, and the Penguins clearly weren’t ready to play it once Boston seized momentum.

Although one has to admire the character of the Bruins and former Penguin/game-winning goal-getter Mark Recchi, still sharp as a tack at age 42, there was absolutely no reason that game should have gotten as far out of hand as the Pens’ eerily similar Nov. 10 collapse.  In the absence of their greatest scoring threat, the Penguins still skated hard and managed to hold a two-goal lead for over 56 minutes against a physically imposing bunch backstopped by one of the top second-string goalies in the NHL.  Under the circumstances, this should equal all but a guaranteed victory for the home team, especially one motivated by suffering their worst loss of the season two days previous.

Typically, in professional hockey, you are what your record says you are until the playoffs start, and it’s no accident the Pens are sitting at fourth in the East, still in the hunt for the Atlantic Division crown.  But to borrow a line from our building secretary, the fact that the Pens continue to put stink on top of stink when it comes to putting away opponents on home ice, particularly formidable ones, indicates this team is not yet ready to win another Cup.

It went without saying Crosby’s absence would present some difficulty.  In addition, as Versus analyst Billy Jaffe recently pointed out, the flu tends to make its way through NHL locker rooms at the midpoint of the season, and maybe that would account for certain things, such as Evgeni Malkin continuing to look unusually ordinary, considering his career numbers minus No. 87.  Be that as it may, champions overcome, and it’s not like the Penguins haven’t found ways to win without their captain in the past.  They may have the heart and the ability of a champion, but right now they’re not proving they have the mental makeup of one.

The flu doesn’t make Geno pass up shots, nor does it make defensemen look unprepared and out of position off the ensuing faceoff when the other team scores 12 seconds beforehand, nor does it make players take penalties late in the game that lead to costly goals.  All those things come back to focus, which this team has lacked frequently this season.

Some say focus isn’t something folks like you or I can gauge unless we’ve played the game.  I beg to differ.  I can tell this Penguin team hasn’t had the focus of the team that surprised the hockey world with its Stanley Cup win two seasons ago.  How do I know?  Simple: Game 7 in Detroit.  They won a tight contest in enemy territory that night–and, lest we forget, sans-Sid–and unlike the current Penguin squad, they didn’t collapse like a cheap tent when one regrettable thing happened late in the third period.

That’s what’s happened too often, and it’s what makes games like Monday’s all the more upsetting.  Speaking of Detroit, if the Pens are fortunate enough to get out of their funk, go deeper in the playoffs this spring, and need to face a team like the Wings–the Flyers, for instance–that historically handles its business at home, that’s when home-ice advantage matters.  That’s why, at this point in the campaign, teams should be fighting that much harder for every point, and that’s why it’s just not good for the Pens to be giving points to teams chasing them, and thus, giving Philly more separation…even if it is “only” January.

Some of those points could have belonged to Pittsburgh if the team were more focused.  If they really did have the mental toughness of their past incarnation, I think the standings might look far different.

I don’t think you would have seen the Pens drop six of their first eight in their new rink, including the aforementioned November loss to the B’s and an equally dismaying setback to Montreal on opening weekend.  I don’t think you would have seen ugly divisional defeats at the hands of the Rangers prior to and following the Pens’ 12-game win streak, including a game in which Pittsburgh surrendered a late lead on a shorthanded goal seconds after taking it.  I don’t think you would have seen the Penguins sleepwalk through a nationally televised game in Philly, a game essentially lost on an ill-advised third-period penalty, which cost them their streak and the division lead.

And I certainly don’t think you would have seen the events that transpired Monday either.

None of those games I just rattled off were among the Penguins’ best efforts this year.  However, they all have one thing in common: the Penguins played just well enough that each of them, including Monday’s loss, was winnable with the clock winding down.  Having said that, it hardly seems excusable the Pens weren’t able to finish on at least one of those six occasions.  That’s 12 points that were entirely up for grabs.  The Flyers lead the Pens by three as the latter gets ready for their rematch in Montreal this evening.

(Now what was that guy on the radio saying about the “exciting” Atlantic Division race…?)

Franz Ferdinand–the music group, not the politician–put it best: “You Could Have It So Much Better.”  That’s why I’m so bent out of shape about one regular season loss; it’s not just one loss, it’s part of a long-term pattern.  Great teams don’t lose their poise, and on multiple occasions, the Penguins have lost their poise late in games, denying them chances to improve their stead, and for any NHL team, that’s a problem.

It goes straight back to what I said prior to Monday’s fiasco: it’s on the players to stay zeroed in when the you-know-what hits the fan.  Maybe Dan Bylsma made a mistake by not using his timeout to settle his team down one goal sooner, but the fact he didn’t did not lose Monday’s game.  Those guys are professionals and well aware of what they were going through, and it’s their responsibility to finish that game right.

Focus can’t necessarily be taught, nor should it have to be taught to players at this level.  Either you have it, or you don’t, and the Penguins need to get it and hang onto it before taking the ice against the Habs in a couple hours.

The hockey historian in me says I’m probably over-reacting, and that the future isn’t written, especially once the Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway.  The historian in me also says those who don’t learn from mistakes made since October are condemned to repeat them in April.

For more news and views on the Penguins, be sure to check out “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm,” Saturday mornings on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan, and the “Puck Talk with Popchock” video blog at 937thefan.com!

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