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Penguins weigh upgrade to defense after collapse

| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 8:20 p.m.
The Penguins' Matt Niskanen speaks to the media at his locker at Consol Energy Center April 24, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

If the Penguins are lucky, the number will only plague them for the summer.

The truth is, it could consume them for much longer.

30.

The team that spent $17 million on its defensive core this season and that boasts one of the most accomplished goaltenders of this generation permitted 30 goals in a six-game stretch to the Flyers that still has the organization stunned.

“I wish I could tell you what happened,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Wish I had an answer.”

The Flyers certainly boast a talented offensive squad — “I don't think anyone has given Philadelphia the credit they deserve,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said — but still, such numbers were retired during the offensive explosion in the 1980s.

The Penguins permitted goals in every possible way. Philadelphia registered 12 power-play goals, three short-handed goals and 15 even-strength goals.

General manager Ray Shero realizes his team never gave itself a chance by permitting so many goals.

“When we talk about our defense,” Shero said, “when you give up 30 goals in six games in a playoff series, that's not good.”

Although goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was far from his best in this series, the Penguins' blue line is under heavy scrutiny. In particular, the two highest-paid defensemen — Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek — are being bombarded by fans and media alike for their shortcomings.

General manager Ray Shero defended the duo in a big way.

“When we signed Paul and Zbynek Michalek (in 2010), we went from 20th in goals against to sixth in the league,” Shero said. “They were a big part of that.”

Three seasons remain on the expensive deals given to Martin and Michalek.

“Both players are really good players in this league,” Shero said. “They've proven that over the course of their careers. Paul Martin was, over his last 20 games of the regular season, a plus-13.”

A cynic would note Martin's numbers improved dramatically around the time he was paired with star defenseman Kris Letang.

Michalek and Brooks Orpik, meanwhile, never found a groove as a defensive pair. A member of the Penguins' organization told the Tribune-Review in January that the duo of Letang and Orpik would not be separated because of its effectiveness.

However, Martin and Michalek struggled so mightily together that the move was ultimately made.

Now, maybe changes will be made.

“When we talk about defense,” Shero said, “it's all six guys on the ice. Over the last 11 games of the season, it failed us.”

Letang, Orpik, Martin, Michalek, Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy are all locked into contracts through at least next season.

Only Matt Niskanen — who excelled at both ends of the rink this season — is a restricted free agent, and he badly wants to return to the Penguins.

“I play my best here,” Niskanen said. “I hope I'm back.”

Just who will be back remains a loaded question entering the offseason.

“We'll see what happens,” Shero said.

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