Starkey: Pens' oldies must lead

| Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Penguins began this so-called "race to four" like Carl Lewis.

They are threatening to finish it like Casey Hampton.

Which is to say, not finish it at all unless they find a way to land the knockout punch against an increasingly confident band of Philadelphia Flyers.

After a terrific Game 1, the Penguins have regressed, at times appearing to be mired in quick sand.

Aside from an excellent start to Game 2 and a dominant first period in Game 5, they have been outplayed for the better part of four games.

Their top two lines cannot sustain pressure.

Their predictable power play has crumbled.

Their north-south game has become too east-west.

Their secondary scoring is nearly non-existent.

They are giving up too many chances on the rush.

Their physical play and energy levels are like a kid on a sugar high -- way up, then way down.

As defenseman Brooks Orpik put it, "We've been far from good."

Luckily for the Penguins, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made a save for the ages to help win Game 2 and played a game for the ages to heist Game 4.

At that point, with a 3-1 series lead, it seemed the Penguins simply had the Flyers' number. They'd beaten the Flyers in seven of nine playoff games in the span of a year.

If the Flyers couldn't win a game in which they pelted Fleury with 46 shots and only gave up 26, how were they going to win at all?

Now, after a 3-0 victory in Game 5, the Flyers have all the momentum going into what should be a frenzied Wachovia Center this afternoon.

The obvious but difficult question for Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, his staff and players:

How to reverse the tide?

I'm wondering if Bylsma has gone a little overboard on working his players. It's not exactly boot camp, mind you, but it's also not that common to see full-participation practices late in a series, like the one the Penguins had Friday at Mellon Arena. Nor do you see many intense, 40-minute game-day skates this time of year, like the one of the Penguins had on the morning of Game 4.

Perhaps it's no big deal, but you have to question whether it's a good idea to hold what is essentially a full practice the day of a game.

Two players who've labored the past three games are two the Penguins desperately need to help lead the way -- 38-year-old winger Bill Guerin and 35-year-old defenseman Sergei Gonchar, the team's oldest regulars.

After scoring twice in Game 2, Guerin has been a non-factor, leading one to wonder if he is feeling his age. In three games since, he has directed only six shots at the Flyers' net, most of them non-threatening.

I asked Guerin if he finds it tougher to bounce back on a day's rest late in his career.

"Physically• No," he said. "If I'm smart enough to know that I have to take short shifts and smart with the way I take care of myself, I have no problems. I honestly feel fresh. I feel good. I feel great."

Guerin was brought in to help lead the team and to score big goals. This is an excellent opportunity to deliver on both fronts.

Gonchar needs to increase his battle level and upgrade his performance on the power play. You wonder, on the first issue, if he remains concerned about the shoulder injury that kept him out for most of the regular season.

A big moment in the series occurred in Game 3, when Gonchar eluded a hit from Claude Giroux behind the Penguins' net but lost the puck, leading to a short-handed goal.

The Flyers expect a different Penguins team to show up today.

"Maybe they'll feel a little more threatened," forward Mike Knuble said. "Maybe they didn't feel threatened enough being up 3-1."


But if the Penguins aren't feeling threatened enough today, something is very wrong -- and the race to four will become a nail-biting race to one Monday night at Mellon Arena.

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