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Kovacevic: Challenge for Penguins to change

| Wednesday, March 26, 2014, 10:52 p.m.
Penguins captian Sidney Crosby back at  practice Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins captian Sidney Crosby back at practice Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 at Consol Energy Center.

These Penguins aren't easy to criticize.

Cite their 6-6-2 record since Sochi, and someone can counter with their 46-21-5 overall record, first place, elite rankings for the power play and penalty kill and, lest anyone take it for granted, Sidney Crosby atop the NHL's scoring list.

Cite their discouraging demeanor of late, with players publicly bemoaning a lack of “passion” and “pride,” and someone can counter with the dispiriting 439 man-games lost to injury and illness, from Kris Letang's stroke to Beau Bennett's multigenerational wrist recovery to Evgeni Malkin now being iffy for playoffs.

Cite the appalling lack of discipline, and, well, some fool always will blame the refs rather than James Neal's occasionally empty helmet.

Explanations and excuses for everything that goes wrong are everywhere.

And maybe that's the real problem the Penguins will lug into their faceoff Thursday night with the visiting Los Angeles Kings: There's never any threat to the status quo.

Think about it this way: If they were to flame out in the first round to, say, the Detroit Red Wings or — gasp — the Columbus Blue Jackets, what would be the aftermath?

Ray Shero wouldn't be in trouble. Never mind that he erred at the most recent trade deadline by putting all of his eggs in Ryan Kesler's basket, only to watch Matt Moulson, Thomas Vanek and others snapped up elsewhere. Or that, in presented with the fairly basic task of filling out the bottom six forwards, he has uncovered little more than Kenny the Kangaroo-sized wannabe scorers. Or that he has presided over eight disastrous drafts that have produced Olli Maatta, Robert Bortuzzo and a laundromat's worth of wasted ceremonial sweaters.

Dan Bylsma wouldn't be in trouble, either. If he could survive last summer's chalkboard bullying from Claude Julien, he certainly should expect to survive any fate befalling a team with so many injuries. Never mind that Bylsma is the one guiding this group that doubts its own character and discipline. Or that, mere minutes after he somewhat blandly panned the Penguins' abominable effort in that 3-2 loss to a tired Phoenix team, it was announced that he had called off practice for Wednesday. No word if ice cream was on the menu.

Crosby, of all people, wouldn't have any aspect of his play or personality called into question. Never mind that he's the one wearing the “C” while word emanates from the locker room Tuesday night that it was Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi and Brandon Sutter who tore into the troops.

One gets the picture.

I'm not suggesting, at least not now, that any of the above should change. But I am suggesting that, if the Penguins want to get serious about shaking off that complacency, those three are the only ones who can make it happen.

Want to know what real urgency would look like?

Shero could start by ditching the majority of the third and fourth lines in favor of anyone with a pulse from Wilkes-Barre. Fill the bus, if needed.

There isn't much in the way of scoring there, but Tom Kostopoulos has 630 NHL games to his resume and is a relentless competitor. Opponents finally would start looking over their shoulders again. Same goes for Zach Sill, who was up earlier when the Penguins played their most physical, most disciplined hockey all winter. Harry Zolnierczyk can tag along, too.

I've heard a lot about the Penguins lacking an identity. Teams don't have identities. Lines do. There will be plenty enough skill once Malkin, Letang and Paul Martin return. The other lines need to do the dirty work, not twirl away from potential checks as they embarrassingly did all night Tuesday.

On Bylsma's end, he can stop baby-sitting.

If players take dumb penalties, don't bench just Jussi Jokinen. Bench Neal. Bench Malkin, even. I like a lot of what Bylsma and staff have done of late strategically in terms of aiming for a solid defensive approach for the playoffs, but discipline is 100 percent the coach's domain. It can't go on.

For that matter, if players look tired, including the Olympians, scratch them. I'm completely serious. Even Crosby, if that's done with proper decorum. These final few games mean nothing compared to what follows.

Should anyone complain, show them the Penguins' playoff ledger since 2010.

Crosby, plain and simple, can speak up.

This is his team, his town, his time. He has to be front and center, not Orpik, Scuderi and Sutter. He has to be the man, the voice. And he most definitely can't keep up the uncharacteristic — yet unmistakable — bad body language he has shown on the ice at times the past couple weeks. If anything's amiss, no one can effect change quite like a captain/superstar/civic icon.

Ask the guy who runs the place.

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