By Matt Popchock
Before you read any further, ask yourself this rhetorical question:
When was the last time you saw a tweet about the Penguins that contained good news?
For me it was shortly after 10 A.M. Tuesday.
Winger James Neal was thought to be lost until after the All-Star break with a broken foot. However, as head coach Dan Bylsma confirmed before the Pens hosted the Ottawa Senators, Neal, in hindsight, had merely irritated an old injury.
Don’t get me wrong, it wouldn’t be a Penguin game without another “undisclosed” infirmity of some kind (you’ve got to love how the NHL protects players by circumventing our First Amendment rights). But the best news to come from yet another rotten day for the Pens was the simple fact that Neal is ostensibly healthy.
The Penguins can tap-dance around the facts post-mortem all they want. But no locker room chatter, not even from a proven on- and off-ice leader like defenseman Brooks Orpik, can change the bottom line: that their recent play has been about as pretty as Bylsma’s sweater collection.
It’s time for all of this team’s still-healthy leaders to lead, not just Orpik. Evgeni Malkin’s shutout-spoiling goal not withstanding, Orpik’s ten hits were probably only redeeming quality of another embarrassing performance at CONSOL Energy Center Tuesday. His talk may ultimately be as cheap as anyone else’s during this five-game skid, but Brooksy wears that “A” for a reason.
Having said that, here’s my second rhetorical question:
Neal emerged as one of those team leaders this season, but where has he been since good times turned bad?
Not only has he gone without a point for the entire losing streak, but he has been an uncommon minus-5 in that span. The league leader in shots on goal was held to three or fewer in three of those losses, and Neal has slipped to sixth in the league in goals with 21, eight behind the chart-topper, Tampa Bay’s Steve Stamkos.
It’s as though Neal has slowly reverted to his old self, the snake-bitten doppelganger from the spring of 2011. In order for the Penguins’ offense to break out of this miserable slump, Jekyll has to win the battle with Hyde (or is it the other way around?).
A year ago at this time, the Penguins didn’t have the services of Malkin. Be glad Geno is healthy now, as bad as things are, and find some wood to knock on while you read this sentence.
He ranks seventh in scoring entering Wednesday with 17 goals and 45 points, and he is going for a three-game goal streak in Washington. But even he has been limited to just three points during the losing streak, and again, a minus-5 rating.
Some say Malkin is an even better player when Crosby is on the shelf. It’s time for Malkin, like he has in the past, to prove those people right.
And what of Orpik? Well, as I said back then, the time Kris Letang has missed due to a broken nose and concurrent concussion may have been an even bigger blow to the Pens than Sidney Crosby’s absence. Last year, without Sid and Geno, the Pens could still win games with their defense, but with such an important piece missing, the puzzle will inevitably look and feel incomplete.
Once again, the Penguins are in the position of having to work harder for goals than they normally would. But even in this bizarre and catastrophic one-year period of poor health, the pantry has never been bare when it comes to defensive talent. That entire unit–Martin, Engelland, and the rest–needs to step up.
Even if Orpik has an occasional bad game, no matter how bumpy the trail gets, I’ll probably see Johnny Wilson rise from the grave before I see him take a shift off. The Penguins still rank ninth overall in goals allowed. Nevertheless, I’ve lost count of the number of visible defensive breakdowns these past five games.
I wonder how many of those would have happen with a healthy Letang on the ice? It shouldn’t matter, given what the Penguins’ defense last year proved it could do under the same duress as this season.
Besides, the offense, or at least what’s left of it, is better equipped to deal with disaster than it was at this time last season. In addition to Malkin and Neal surviving the latest flight of the injury bug, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, Tyler Kennedy, and Steve Sullivan are at Bylsma’s service.
Dupuis and Kunitz have started the season well on his top two lines. Kennedy elevated his game last year when the Pens were dropping like flies. Sullivan has been consistent since overcoming a Neal-esque scoring drought of his own.
Those guys have combined for all of two goals in the past five games.
We know where Jordan Staal stands, and we now know that, although there is no timetable for Sid’s return, he will accompany the team this week and skate on his own, according to Bylsma.
We’re all entitled to take the leap of faith that both will be healthy for the playoffs. But before we can worry about the playoffs, the Penguins have to qualify. That only happens if their healthy stars resume playing like stars.
Be sure to check out 93.7 The Fan and its website for continuing Penguins coverage, including Casey Shea’s “Shea-ved Ice” blog.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)