Most NHL teams would be thrilled to pick up points in 3 consecutive games, especially when 2 of them were on the road. That just isn't the case in Pittsburgh. Where fans and media are asking many questions: What is wrong with the defense? Is Mario playing like a 40 year old? Why aren't the Penguins using Mario and Sidney on the same line? Should the team make a trade or fire Coach Eddie Olczyk? These are the same fans that endured an 18 game losing streak during the '03-'04 season and not one time uttered a single word about trades or firings. Though expectations are high, what needs to be realized is that there are many new players on this team, and there is a period of transition for them. Though it is hard to realize following the tough OT losses and failure to succeed in the first shootout of the season, this team will gel at some point. There is far to much talent not too. Now to address some of the aforementioned questions:
What is wrong with the defense?
Though the Pens defense seems to be the major flaw with the team, it can only get better. Part of the problem lies in the fact that Sergei Gonchar is not playing up to his superstar potential. He has been floating around the ice, unable to control the puck in crucial situations, getting beat by most puck carriers and most importantly: NOT SCORING! This will not continue, Gonchar has a pedigree in this league, and that is one of scoring and being sound defensively. Unfortunately, he is known for the occasion turnover and that could be a problem. The Penguins also have Dick Tarnstrom and Richard Jackman who will chip in more with points than with defensive work. The defensive players on the blue line haven't been up to the challenge. Brooks Orpik has been the poster child for the Penguins defensive woes. His play has been poor and he is taking penalties with much frequency. He has drawn the ire of Coach Edzo as well as team captain, Mario Lemieux. Mario's post game comments after the season opening loss to New Jersey all but called Orpik by name, stating that these players need to learn what is a penalty or they will not be here. Steve Poapst, Rob Scuderi and Josef Melichar just do not have the mobility to be in the new NHL. They could all be spot or role players going forward, but they have been given too much responsibility and are doing nothing with it. The one bright spot was Lyle Odelein's play in Buffalo Monday. He seemed to be steady and also was able to serve as a calming influence on Orpik. The Penguins have help if they want it. Ryan Whitney is one of the leading defensive scorers in the AHL and Noah Welch is ready to step into the big time now! Some roster shuffling is necessary, but bring these kids up.
Is Mario Lemieux playing like a 40 year old?
Mario is still Mario and this new wide open NHL is going to serve him very well. He has been as guilty as the rest of the team of overpassing the puck, especially on the power play. Great players do that when they are playing with other great players because they think they can set up the beautiful tic tac toe play. Well, they will soon realize that shooting the puck is the only way to score goals in this league. Mario, though not as fast as he once was, is still one of the most dangerous players in the league. His on ice vision is still superior to most others. He will get his points, as evidenced by his two goal effort in Boston last Saturday night on home ice. This is the same Mario Lemieux who put up 11 points in 4 preseason games to start the season. As long as he stays healthy, he will be among the leading scorers. Mario isn't one to fail, he never has been. He will begin to score with frequency again.
Why aren't the Penguins using Mario Lemieux on a line with Sidney Crosby?
There are several reasons why they have not done this on a regular basis. First, Crosby is the biggest hockey story in ages. He is has a gigantic amount of pressure on him to perform and to live up to his "Next One" status. If he was on a line with Mario Lemieux and the line wasn't producing, the media would be all over them. Plus, Mario and Sidney are very similar, in that they need the puck to be successful. They are both creators and great passers. If this was the Mario of 7 or 8 years ago, one who was more of a goal scorer, the line would be a great combo, but now it just wouldn't work. The line, like the power play would be accused of overpassing. Sidney may also be compelled to feed the puck to Mario every time he touched it. Having him play with speedy, creative wingers such as Mark Recchi and Ziggy Palffy will better help him achieve his lofty goals. They are also two of the teams most gifted offensive weapons, and the Penguins want to avoid placing "all their eggs in one basket" so to speak. The other teams defense would key on this line and stifle it, even if they had to come out and take a penalty against them each time. These two players should get some power play time together, that is something that could be experimented with, but has only been given a chance for about a minute.
Should the team make a trade or fire Coach Eddie Olczyk?
This team was built by Craig Patrick, who arguably is one of the best at his craft when his hands aren't bound by salary constraints. The players he brought in are mostly game breakers and or great veteran role players. Though some of the players haven't played up to the expectations yet, I find it hard to believe that they will not. These players are all proven NHLers and know what it takes to win. For as bad as the defense has been, this team could easily be 3-1 if a couple of bounces had gone their way. Had that been the case, no one would be asking any of these questions. This team will gel, the scorers will find a way to fill the net, and they will start to win games. There may be moves on the horizon, but that will come much later in the season to plug any glaring holes. As for coach Ed Olczyk, I wasn't thrilled when I heard that the team was hiring their broadcast color man to be the new head coach, but then I heard his press conference. This guy knows what it takes to win a Stanley Cup and how to get the most out of his players. Edzo loves the game, and loves mentoring young players. He did a great job with a very young and inexperienced team in 'o3-'04. He, like many of his players, may need a slight transitional period. It is a big difference dealing with fringe NHLers as opposed to millionaires. Having been at training camp, he was still teaching and mentoring, as if he still had a very young group. Eddie Olczyk will lead this team back to the playoffs, and maybe even the back to Stanley Cup glory.
The team has played 4 games and picked up 3 points, which is good. There have been positives such as the play of Sidney Crosby, and Ziggy Palffy's goal scoring. Success will start coming to this team. They will recommit to team defense and the wins will start to come. There are many winners in this group, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Mark Recchi, John LeClair, and Sidney Crosby. Success follows guys like this and it will in Pittsburgh.
Eric Staal has been unbelievable in the first week of the season. After posting 4 points (1g 3a) Wednesday night against Washington, the young forward is among the league leaders with 8 points.
Illya Kovalchuck finally signed with the Atlanta Thrashers : 5 years 32.5 million. This is great news for Atlanta, and adds something special to their already formidable offense!
Alexander Ovechkin has taken the NHL by storm. He has been one of Washington's best players notching 7 points in the first 6 games of the season.