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Wild's trap smothers Penguins

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Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011

There is a four-letter word that the Penguins can expect to hear a lot the rest of this season. At least, they'll hear it if they continue to struggle against the T-R-A-P.

They certainly did Saturday night at Consol Energy Center in a 4-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild.

Winger Craig Adams correctly noted that every NHL team, including the Penguins, relies "on a different neutral-zone forecheck." In fact, the Wild's resembles the one implemented by the Penguins — not without coincidence, either.

Minnesota coach Todd Richards was the head coach at AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with Penguins coach Dan Bylsma as his assistant. Richards is 3-0 against his former bench partner, and Bylsma's teams have scored four goals in those games.

The Penguins (26-13-4, 56 points) are 5-5-2 since the end of their 12-game winning streak Dec. 11. They have scored two or fewer goals in seven of those contests.

"I sensed a frustrated group over on the other side, at least looking at their body language," Richards said.

The last five games have provided another frustrating trend for the Penguins — that "T" word. Starting with a loss at the New York Islanders on Dec. 29, each of the Penguins' opponents has tried some variation of that frustrating neutral-zone system.

Even the Washington Capitals, generally regarded as an up-tempo-all-the-time team, trapped after taking a lead in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day. And they actually bragged about their defensive display.

Quick reminder: The New Jersey Devils didn't have to brag while trapping their way to a 6-0 record against the Penguins last season. The Devils had all-time goalie Martin Brodeur, who has beaten the Penguins 40 times since 1991.

Jose Theodore, a former MVP signed by the Wild in October, won his 19th game against the Penguins after stopping 26 shots. As Richards noted, Theodore is an expert handler of the puck — leaving one effective method for success against the trap, a dump-and-retrieve approach, fairly ineffective.

"We were second to the puck," Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis said. "You aren't going to win hockey games that way."

Registering more than six shots in the third period with the score hardly out of reach also would help.

The Wild carried a 2-0 lead into the third on first-period markers by Chuck Kobasew and Martin Havlat. Third-period coffin-nails were driven in by Cal Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak, the latter into an empty net.

Empty is how the Penguins should feel about their efforts against the trap, but they seem to be in denial that the system has played any role in this 1-2-2 stretch. They've scored only three goals in the four losses.

"I don't think (it's a concern)," left wing Matt Cooke said. "I just think it's a mentality."

Cooke was among many teammates who lamented his club's ability to play with speed through the neutral zone.

So, let's explore the commonly held definition of the trap: a system designed to clog the neutral zone, close passing lanes and minimize penetration at the blue line. What did the Wild do to earn this win?

"They trapped us," Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said, "and we turned the puck over."

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