By: Casey Shea

As the Penguins prepare to take the ice against the New York Islanders tonight, I’m left wondering a few things about where this team actually is early on in the season.

Which Penguins team can we expect this season? The one that dominated the Flyers and Rangers out of the gate, or the one that decided to be charitable and turn the puck over at will against the Maple Leafs and Jets?

The biggest difference between the two wins and the two losses that followed was how the team mismanaged the puck.

Passes weren’t crisp, the breakout was terrible and the opponent countered with their team speed to pin the Penguins in their own end. Essentially, they shoved the Penguins’ game down their throats.

The first periods in both of the losses were decent enough, but in the final 40 minutes, the Penguins went from playing a north-south style to more of an east-west game and got burned for it.

I will say that both the Maple Leafs and Jets are faster than the Penguins, but you can combat that easily by keeping a good gap defensively and taking care of the puck. Both of those things didn’t happen.

Make the first pass out of the zone hard and on the tape, gain the red line, chip the puck deep and go hit the defenseman going back for it. The more you hit a guy going back for the puck, the more apt he is to look over his shoulder and cough it up.

The Penguins did a much better job in their own end and with the puck in their 2-1 shootout win over the Senators on Sunday. However, there were some brutal turnovers committed late in the third period and even one of note in overtime that led to Marc-Andre Fleury having to bail out his team.

Also of concern is the lack of secondary scoring the Penguins have seen early on this season.

Heading into tonight’s game, the Penguins have scored 14 goals. (Note: statistics show the team credited with 15 due to the “goal” being awarded for the shootout win.)

Two of those are empty netters and five have come on the power play.

Here’s the breakdown:

James Neal – 4
Sidney Crosby – 3
Evgeni Malkin, Tyler Kennedy Paul Martin, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Niskanen and Kris Letang all have one each.

Essentially, the big three of Crosby, Malkin and Neal have accounted for 8 of the team’s 12 goals scored with a goalie in the net.

Brandon Sutter only has one assist, while Matt Cooke and the entire fourth line have yet to find the score sheet.

To me, Sutter has looked good and he’s getting his chances. Steve Sullivan went through the same thing last year where he had countless golden scoring opportunities, but just couldn’t get the light to go on for one reason or another.

Sutter will be just fine and I’m sure once the first one goes in, we’ll all see a big sigh of relief during his celebration.

My final concern right now is the play of Crosby. To me, he just doesn’t look like the same player he used to be.

I don’t mean that he’s lost a step or that his skills have diminished in any way. That’s not the case at all. He’s still arguably the best player in the world and it’s a thrill to watch him every night.

What I mean here is that he looks a little tentative to go to the dirty areas at times. A prime example was in the win over the Rangers in the second period.

Crosby was behind the net with the puck and had Henrik Lundqvist leaning the wrong way. Crosby glided out to the right post and instead going for the slam dunk wraparound that likely would have scored, he avoided it and tried to throw the puck in off of Lundqvist.

By my estimation, he likely would have taken a hit by a defenseman to make the play. All I’m saying is a couple of years ago, it’s a goal.

I’m wondering how much of this is just Crosby testing the waters or if he’s still trying to find his legs after only playing a fraction of the team’s games over the last two seasons.

Obviously, there’s going to be some rust to shake off after being out that long and I’m hoping that’s all this is and that the concussions aren’t on his mind every time he steps on the ice. This is just something I’ve noticed recently and will continue to pay attention to as the season goes on.

There’s no need to go pushing the panic button yet on any of these concerns. In the end, they’ve only played five games. By comparison, a normal preseason schedule consists of about six games.

It’s still early on and adjustments will be made. Here’s hoping the Pens can keep up the momentum and get a better result in their second home game of the season tonight.

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