PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux watched most of the team’s lengthy 90-minute practice, which made it a different day than usual for the Stanley Cup champions.
The boss was in the house, and he clearly wasn’t there to socialize following the end of an 0-4 road trip.
The coach wasn’t very happy, either. Dan Bylsma originally scheduled a day off Monday following two games in Florida in as many days and before a home game against Atlanta on Tuesday. Instead he put his players through one of their longest practices of the season.
Maybe captain Sidney Crosby said it best: When a team is slumping like Pittsburgh is, with five consecutive losses and the NHL’s reigning scoring champion not producing, a day off is a luxury.
“When we were winning five, six games in a row, we got away with two or three games where we didn’t play well and still won,” Crosby said. “We’ve played two or three good of the five we lost. There’s no magic thing, we’ve got to find a way to win a hockey game and just get back to the things that made us successful.”
In other NHL cities, six losses in seven games by a championship-level team might result in a player move or two. But with the Penguins up against the salary cap, and not a lot of help waiting around in the minors, change probably must come from within.
“No one’s happy, but there’s no finger pointing or anything like that,” defenceman Brooks Orpik said. “We’re a team that’s used to winning, so it’s a little bit different for us. But there’s no trades coming or anything like that. Nothing else outside of this room’s going to change anything. The coaches can give us all they got, it comes to a point where it all falls on us.”
It’s obvious something needs to be done, even if the Penguins’ 26-16-1 record hardly seems to be reason for panic.
What’s worrisome to them is that leads are being lost, winnable games are being thrown away and opponents are playing with far more confidence than usual against the defending champions.
“We’re making mistakes,” Crosby said. “And we’re paying for it.”
The biggest concern is Evgeni Malkin’s extended slide. Last season’s scoring leader has three goals – all in a single game – and two assists in his past nine contests. He’s fallen all the way to No. 30 with 38 points, 19 fewer than leader Joe Thornton of San Jose.
“It’s all my fault,” Malkin said after a 6-2 loss Sunday at Florida in which the Penguins led 2-0. “My game is not good right now. I don’t know why.”
The Penguins’ offence is so reliant upon Crosby and Malkin that taking one of the two stars out of the equation makes a major difference. So does not scoring on the power play; the Penguins have drawn a league-high 180 power plays, but are converting on a league-low 14.4 per cent (26 goals). Montreal, by contrast, is successful at a 24.8 per cent rate.
Orpik points to another reason for the kind of slump that got former coach Michel Therrien fired in February.
“Everyone’s got us marked off on the schedule and with the parity in the league, there’s not really an easy game,” Orpik said. “You look at the teams that beat us this year – Carolina, Toronto, Islanders – some of the teams are at the bottom. Anyone can beat anyone.”
Until now, beating the Penguins hasn’t been easy under Bylsma, who won the Stanley Cup last season after implementing a puck-control system designed to play to his team’s strengths. Partly due to the compressed schedule resulting from the two-week Olympics layoff that occurs next month, Bylsma sees his team slipping into bad habits that aren’t easily fixed when there always seems to be another game waiting to be played.
“We’re a good team, we know how to play, we need to execute better and we need to pay attention to details and get back to how we play,” Bylsma said. “Get our team playing with that swagger and mentality that we’re a good team and we should be the aggressor and should force teams to play our style.”
With the Penguins facing seven games in 12 days and 13 in 26 days, they realize they can’t afford to stay in a slump.
“There’s been some frustration here and there, not with each other, but just with the way some things went on the ice,” defenceman Jay McKee said. “That’s what adversity is all about and we’re going through it right now. We’re going to get through this.”