As we head into the all-star break the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves on the outside looking in. Sitting uncomfortably at 10th place in the Eastern Conference, things can go either two ways at this point - horribly wrong or amazingly well.
Even still, the term 'amazing' shouldn't lead one to think the Pens will put together a robust 13-game win streak or post a .750 or higher win percentage.
The Pens will not win the conference this year; that's entirely out of the question. For starters, Boston is way too hot right now. There's no denying that the Bruins are putting a stranglehold on the East with every win they rack up. Even a complete an utter collapse that would still find the Bruins playing hockey past the first week of April.
Winning the division isn't as far-fetched as the pundits would make it out to be. That's not to say it won't take a supreme effort of sorts but it's more strategy and placing wins than anything else. To emphasize those points - the Pens more or less have to start their pursuit of a division title by beating teams in the division. Coming out of the all-star break, what better way to test this than with a rematch against the New York Rangers?
A lot of people are ragging on the Pens this year but to say it's not justified would pose as the prime example of a writer wearing black and gold goggles. They earned their praise last year and this season they are earning the criticism. Good play brings good response, bad play brings bad response. Simple sports media philosophy there.
And so I ask with more inquisition - what needs to be done? How can the Penguins turn this thing around?
Read on for the breakdown...
Improve the power play
They have some beautiful passes out there, really pretty. But where are they going other than tape-to-tape? It's not uncommon to see the Pens register only one shot with the man advantage lately. It's the eternal conversation here on Pensburgh - shoot...shoot...SHOOT. Granted that doesn't mean launch a shot off target that leads to an easy clear, but you all know exactly what the Pens need to do - get a body (Cooke) up front, deflect/distract/disorientate and crash for a rebound. Let's also spare a few shorties while we're at it too, ok?
Master the trap
As evidenced with two straight wins over the Ducks and Rangers, the trap is working. It's kinda funny how it took losing two in a row to the Boston Bruins for the Penguins to try and institute a new defense to compliment their offense. At least something good can come of losing, huh?
Make every minute count/make most of opportunities
This goes for both sides of the puck. If the Pens have the lead, make every minute with the lead count. If that means controlling the aforementioned neutral zone, thus resulting in a boring third period, so be it. It still goes down as a win in my book. The same can be said of making the most of opportunities that sway in their direction. For an immediate example, look no further than the 2-1 loss to the Hurricanes on Tuesday. The Penguins had an opportunity to tie the game late in the third with a four-minute power play. Rather than put shots on net they struggled to hold the zone and in turn squandered any chance to at least skate away with a point.
Find lines that work
It would appear as if Michel Therrien has given the whole "pull a name from the hat" game a rest. Things look pretty solid with Crosby-Cooke on the first line and Malkin-Sykora on the second. Satan is a bottom two-line guy lately, while Staal is really just looking for a home on either the first line with Crosby or third line with Kennedy/Satan. Of course, the biggest obstacle in finding lines that work is...
Easier said than done. As much as we'd all love to see Fedotenko back with a prostetic hand and Gonchar on the blue line with a sling-shot shoulder, injuries are an unfortunate part of the game that only time can subdue. The worst part with this scenario however is that time is hardly on the Penguins' side when they kick up the second half of the season Wednesday against the Rangers. The Penguins have to go 20-13-1 to reach and/or surpass the 90 point plateau that more or less puts them in playoff contention. Suddenly those shootout/overtime losses from earlier in the season hurt twice as much...
With that said, what did I miss? Always open to hear what you guys and gals are thinkin.