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Starkey: Penguins' greatest challenge

| Thursday, March 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik takes down the Panthers' Tomas Fleischmann in the second period Feb. 2, 2013, at Consol Energy Center. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik takes down the Panthers' Tomas Fleischmann in the second period Feb. 2, 2013, at Consol Energy Center. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

It's nearly time for Dan Bylsma's halftime speech.

The Penguins, unbelievably, will complete the first half of their season Thursday in Philadelphia. Which means we have only 23 games upon which to base our opinions and projections.

To be sure, the positive developments have outweighed the negative ones. When the Penguins awoke Wednesday, they led the Eastern Conference in victories and were tied for most goals.

Sidney Crosby is back to being Sidney Crosby, Paul Martin is back to being Paul Martin, Marc-Andre Fleury is back to being Marc-Andre Fleury, and Chris Kunitz has suddenly morphed into Bobby Hull.

The power play is clicking at 25.6 percent, and the Penguins have proven adept at protecting late leads (9-0 when leading after two periods).

The negatives include Tomas Vokoun's recent implosion, the penalty kill's severe regression, and, in a related story, periodic flashbacks to last year's horrifying playoff series against the Flyers.

The Penguins' greatest challenge is to improve their team defense. As of Wednesday, they were 20th in the NHL in goals-against average at 2.91, an alarming rise from last year's mediocre 2.66.

“I think every guy will say we have to be better defensively,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik.

The number above — 20th in the league — is significant. Here's why: Of the 12 Stanley Cups champions since the turn of the millennium, only two finished lower than 10th in goals allowed.

One was the 2009 Penguins (17th), the other the '06 Hurricanes (20th).

Those teams won under unusual circumstances. The Penguins made a late-season coaching change, the 'Canes a late-season goalie change. Both moves led to rare and magical runs.

The Penguins have the harder part down: They can score. Every championship team but two (2003 Devils, '12 Kings) since 2000 has finished in the top eight in scoring. These next 25 games are about settling into a saner, more solid style.

That means cutting back on the high-risk plays that sometimes undermine the Penguins (see: 6-5 loss to Flyers), and, more importantly, buckling down in the defensive zone.

Is that merely a mindset?

Hockey analyst Pierre McGuire believes so. He knows people are talking about the Penguins' leaky team defense.

“When I coached there (assistant, 1991, '92) people said the same thing about us,” McGuire said. “And then we got into the playoffs, and everybody committed to playing team defense and we won Cups. Stuff can change quick.”

Still, McGuire says, “This team can use a stabilizing kind of defenseman.”

Orpik said players are adjusting to a new defensive-zone scheme. One feature is centers having increased responsibility down low.

“We obviously didn't have the luxury of having a normal camp to learn it,” Orpik said. “So I guess we're still trying to adjust. One area we're guilty of is watching pucks too much.

“When the puck goes back to the point, if you have a guy and you let him go, a lot of times the puck finds that guy. Our goalie has the most equipment on, so let him be the goalie. We don't need three or four goalies like the Rangers do it.

“I think it's really just identifying guys and trying to box them out.”

Sounds easy. We'll see.

In the meantime, a quick look at a wild first half …

MVP: Crosby.

MVP not named Sidney: Kunitz.

Surprise: Martin's reversal.

Disappointment: Vokoun giving up more touchdowns than the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Best goal: Evgeni Malkin's annual humiliate-the-Lightning display.

Best coaching move: Acknowledging the folly of James Neal on the point and adjusting the power play.

Worst coaching move (besides putting Neal on the point in the first place): Not starting Fleury in front of family in Montreal.

Three oddities: Orpik, eighth in the NHL in hits last season, is fifth on his team this season … Orpik, 40th in the NHL in blocked shots last season, is second in the league this season … Malkin has only two even-strength goals.

Still waiting for: A shorthanded goal … a Tanner Glass point … a Fleury shutout, which would be his 23rd and break Tom Barrasso's team record.

It's been more than a year since Fleury recorded a shutout. Better team defense would surely help.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at

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