By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
January 11, 2012
Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins attempts a backhand shot on goal as goaltender Craig Anderson #41 of the Ottawa Senators dives to make the save on January 10, 2012 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Ottawa defeated Pittsburgh 5-1. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
The company line coming from the Penguins' room Tuesday night was surprisingly upbeat. It sure seemed as if coach Dan Bylsma told the players to keep things positive despite the ugly 5-1 home loss to the Ottawa Senators, the team's fifth consecutive defeat. The players talked of liking their effort but hating their execution in key spots. They came across as lying through their teeth. Bylsma did his part, talking mostly about "some serious gaffes" that led to a couple of early Ottawa goals that made for a long night.
It really was a crock.
The effort stunk.
It's one thing to lose a big game at home. It's something inexcusable to not show up. The Penguins weren't ready to play at best and didn't seem to care at worst.
Shame on 'em.
Going in, Bylsma talked of the game having almost a playoff feel even though it marked the official halfway point of the Penguins' 82-game season. They started the night in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Only the top eight make the playoffs.
Certainly, Bylsma coached the game as if it were that important. He called his timeout at 14:03 of the first period -- after a goal by Bobby Butler put Ottawa ahead, 2-0 -- and gave his team the business on the bench. He pulled goaltender Brent Johnson at 1:15 of the second period -- after a goal by Jason Spezza nudged the Senators' lead to 3-0 -- and replaced him with Marc-Andre Fleury.
Maybe it was that early 2-0 deficit that put the Penguins in a funk. Defenseman Brooks Orpik had talked of the team wilting in the face of adversity after its 3-1 home loss to the New Jersey Devils Saturday. Now, that was truthful, painful as it was for Bylsma and a lot of the other players to hear.
The same curling up and quitting happened in this game.
The 2-0 hole must have seemed deep and dark for a hockey club that had scored two, one, one and one goal in the first four games of the losing streak.
Another injury couldn't have helped, either. Young defenseman Simon Despres left early in the game with a lower-body problem and did not return. It seems like a different player is going down every day.
But enough with the excuses.
A good team doesn't check out the way the Penguins did.
A playoff-caliber team continues to fight.
We have come to take a playoff spot for granted for the Penguins. It is hardly a lock this season.
Sure, there still are 41 regular-season games to play, beginning with another big one tonight in Washington against the Capitals, who trail the Penguins by just two points in the standings. A lot of good things can happen between now and the second week of April.
But, really, what are you seeing from these Penguins that makes you think those good things are going to occur?
It's fair to think the Sidney Crosby issue finally is catching up with the team. Many of the players wondered privately why he took so long to get back in the lineup this season from his concussion-like symptoms. They had watched him in practice for weeks before his return against the New York Islanders Nov. 21.
Now that he's out again after playing just eight games, a lot of players -- just like a lot of us -- are wondering if he's going to play again this season. Crosby hasn't spoken publicly since Dec. 12. That has left his teammates to try to answer questions for him. Know this: That gets very old for the guys in the room.
"You cannot replace a guy like Sidney," Ottawa defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. "You cannot replace a guy like [Kris] Letang. They miss them big-time."
Gonchar should know. He played with Crosby, Letang and the Penguins when they won the Stanley Cup in 2009. Letang, an All-Star defenseman, has been out since Nov. 26 with his own concussion-like symptoms. Bylsma talked Tuesday night of him making progress and "hopefully [being] back at practice soon," but his return to the lineup doesn't seem imminent. As a sad topper, valuable two-way center Jordan Staal injured his left knee Friday night against the New York Rangers and is expected to be out four-to-six weeks.
We're back to the excuses.
No one wants to hear 'em.
"We can't wait for anyone to get back," Orpik said Tuesday night. "This group has to pull us through. The guys in this room."
Making sure it happens is Bylsma's biggest challenge since he's been the Penguins' coach. His 2009-10 team lost five games in a row near midseason, but four were on the road. Four of the five losses during this woeful streak were at home.
For sure, the Penguins need a big effort tonight against the Capitals.
A legitimate effort.
What they gave against the Senators was a joke.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author