The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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January 24, 2013

Pens pause after setback

PITTSBURGH — Hold off on the confetti making. Don’t start looking for a good seat along the Stanley Cup parade route. Don’t bother trying to pick a spot in the Consol Energy Center rafters for the next championship banner to hang.

For all their talented parts, the Pittsburgh Penguins remain very much a work in progress.

And while the Penguins knew not to overreact to a 5-2 drumming at the hands of Toronto on Wednesday night, a victory that quickly took some of the steam out of Pittsburgh’s 2-0 start, they also understand they can’t simply rely on talent every night to get the job done.

“When your mindset is not right when you’re playing the Leafs, it can cost you,” defenseman Kris Letang said.

Coach Dan Bylsma anticipated an emotional letdown after his team opened the season with emphatic road wins against rivals Philadelphia and the New York Rangers. He hoped the excitement of playing a home game for the first time in nine months would make up the difference.

Instead, the Penguins crumbled over the final 30 minutes, taking a series of penalties that eventually snowballed into a series of uncharacteristic mistakes the NHL’s second-youngest team had no trouble pouncing on.

Toronto scored the last three goals, all of them relatively easy tallies following a Pittsburgh miscue. The most glaring came on a botched clearing attempt by Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin that went right to the stick of Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk at the top of the left circle. The wrist shot whizzed by Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Maple Leafs a lead they would not give back.

And just like that, the aura of invincibility the Penguins showed while drumming the Flyers and Rangers evaporated and the ghosts of last spring’s playoff meltdown against Philadelphia returned.

Not that Sidney Crosby is quite ready to go down that road. The superstar chalked Pittsburgh’s poor performance in front of the largest crowd ever to see a hockey game in the franchise’s history to a bad night.

“We know what we need to do, we just weren’t as sharp as we needed to be,” said Crosby, who collected his first goal in 280 days on a breakaway in the second period that tied the game at 2.

The Penguins weren’t as calm either. Crosby picked up a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct in the third period while Malkin earned a game misconduct at the final horn after losing his cool with the officials following a frustrating 60 minutes in which the league’s reigning MVP looked a little bit off.

“I was really mad,” Malkin said. “But it was my fault.”

There was plenty to go around. The Penguins turned the puck over seven times, five of them coming from either Crosby (three) or Malkin (two). The giveaways left the defense woefully out of position at times, something that happened all too often in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Shoring up things in their own end will be a point of emphasis all season, and with only a week to get ready after the end of the 119-day NHL lockout, practice time devoted expressly to defense has been tough to come by.

Not that it matters to the team captain anyway.

“I don’t think the excuse of a short camp is a really good one,” Crosby said. “Other teams have had short camps to do offensive zone, too. It all evens out at the end of the day. We did it the first two games, we did a really good job of it. I don’t think we can use that as an excuse.”

Perhaps, but there was something unsettling with how often the Maple Leafs found themselves all alone in front of the net. It’s a scene van Riemsdyk saw repeatedly while playing for the Flyers, who ushered Pittsburgh out of the postseason in six entertaining if somewhat frantic games last April.

Asked if he saw any significant change in the way the Penguins approached defense, van Riemsdyk was diplomatic.

“Tough to say, obviously they’re a world class team over there,” he said. “If you put a good forecheck on them and make them make plays, sometimes you’re going to get opportunities.”

The pressure up front seemed to rattle two of the world’s best players, though Crosby insisted the Penguins were their own worst enemy on a night that proved a sobering reality check for a team listed as the Stanley Cup favorite by oddsmakers.

“There (were) some pretty, not routine (plays) but plays we feel like we should make and didn’t make and it ends up big chances for them,” Crosby said. “I think overall we know what to do. It’s just that one play, you have to make that play.”

The Penguins will get a chance to bounce back tonight when they play in Winnipeg.

Pittsburgh sent minor league defenseman Carl Sneep to Dallas for a conditional draft pick.

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