A glaring weakest of the Pittsburgh Penguins was horribly exposed in the 3-0 loss to the Dallas Stars last night. It's been hidden by great special teams play and outstanding performances by the Pens superstars. But Saturday's game showed how crippling this weakest is. The Penguins may be leading the Eastern Conference, but they need their secondary scoring to start (you know) scoring to remain there.
The Stars game-plan of shutting down the first two lines and forcing the third and fourth units to beat them worked better than putting bacon on a cheeseburger. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were harassed by Dallas's defensemen and the duo managed seven combined shots. That's it. With Sid and Geno fighting for space along the boards and being tied up in offensive zone entries, their surrounding cast failed to give them any relief. Chuck Kobasew was the only other Penguins with more than two shots, firing three. Guys like Brandon Sutter, Jayson Megna, and Jussi Jokinen? A combined three shots on goal. The Penguins will not get anything done with that lack of support.
The secondary scoring problem has been masked. Superstars like Crosby and Malkin and Neal have been tallying points at video game levels. The defensive core has also contributed, with every blueliner getting a assist in Wednesday's 5-1 drumming of the Montreal Canadiens. All this is great and there are 29 other teams in the NHL that want that kind of twin production. But when the headliners and defensmen are having trouble, who is there to pick up the slack?
When Pascal Dupuis went down, the Penguins looked to players like Sutter and Jokinen to replace him (or do as well as they can). After scoring three goals in two games in early January, Jokinen has grabbed only three tallies in the last eight games. And that's playing on a line with Neal and Malkin. Brandon Sutter had a empty netter against the New York Islanders on January 23rd, but that was his first since December 19th. In that fourteen game span Sutter has only two assists. Granted he has been dealing with two revolving doors at his wings, but the third line should be way more productive than that.
Penguins general manager Ray Shero is no stranger to making deals at the deadline. The popular consensus is the Pens need a first line winger, but rebuilding the third line is what the team needs more. The great thing about going that route? It would not take losing a ton of parts to do. A draft pick here, two prospects there and – poof! -you have yourself a quality third unit. And just like that, the second tier scoring conundrum is solved.
At least it should be. As always, Pens fans will have to trust Ray Shero to fix this. He has a pretty good track record at that.
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