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Penguins not satisfied with play this season

| Monday, Nov. 28, 2011

The Penguins surely have not had it easy to start the NHL season.

In October, they played games in four time zones, and they opened November with a second trip to the West Coast.

Their top four defensemen, who combine to count $16.25 million against the salary cap, have been together for all of nine games.

Center Evgeni Malkin's anticipated bounce-back return from last year's season-ending knee surgery lasted six periods before he aggravated the right knee. Only last week, with eight points in four games, did he start producing at an elite level.

Also, some player named Sidney Crosby missed the Penguins' first 20 games.

Still, as of Sunday, the Penguins owned the NHL's highest point total (32), a penalty kill ranked second (91.2 percent) and a power play that is a respectable ninth (18.6 percent). There is much to like about coach Dan Bylsma's club, which was:

• Fifth in fewest average penalty minutes at 10 per contest, despite ranking fourth with 531 hits.

• Sixth in average goals for (3.1) and ninth in goals against (2.8).

• Second to Detroit with 10 wins by two or more goals.

All of these stats were being dismissed Saturday night by Penguins players after an inspired comeback from a two-goal deficit for a 4-3 overtime win at Montreal.

"It's about dominating games," center Jordan Staal said. "We've got to find a way to take control of games. Look at (Saturday night). It was close to a 50-50 battle, and we certainly had opportunities we didn't capitalize on. We've got to find better ways to wear other teams down and really give them no chance to win the game."

The Penguins' opening-period goal differential is plus 1, compared to plus-17 over the final two periods. They have allowed opponents to score first in 11 games.

"We can start better, that's pretty obvious," winger Arron Asham said.

Before Crosby's triumphant return last Monday, Asham said the Penguins "weren't playing their best," and he did not stop with a generalization.

"Our defensive zone was a mess, and we were trying to get too fancy," he said. "That's been better the last couple of games, but we can't get caught looking too far ahead."

That view might prove enough to shake even the most confident group.

Starting with a game Tuesday at the New York Rangers, 10 of the Penguins' next 20 games are against teams that began Sunday in the top eight of the Eastern or Western Conference. Sixteen of those games are against teams playing .500 or better.

The Stanley Cup isn't won during 20 games from the end of November through mid-January. However, this stretch, which players drolly described as "the grind" of an NHL season, will provide these Penguins with an opportunity to show their best against their stiffest competition for the ultimate prize.

"We've got our team together right now," winger Pascal Dupuis said. "Let's see what we can do when we're healthy."

Assessing the Pens

About 30 percent of the season is complete for the Penguins (14-6-4, 32 points). Beat reporter Rob Rossi's five observations:

Best player: Jordan Staal

> > He has developed into the total package befitting a former No. 2 overall pick. His defense (15 takeaways) remains elite, and his offense (12 goals) is nearly at that level.

Biggest surprise: Pascal Dupuis

> > Wrestling this away from Matt Cooke (6 goals compared to 8 penalty minutes) wasn't going to be easy, but Dupuis' 19 points and plus-12 rating gives him the nod.

Best development: Forward depth

> > All anybody needs to know about this group of forwards is that Mark Letestu, who scored 10 goals last season, was traded because he wasn't a candidate to be a 13th forward. Six forwards have scored at least 5 goals.

Worst performance: Paul Martin

> > His 39 blocked shots confirm his stick-on-puck skill is ideal for what coach Dan Bylsma wants from defensemen. However, he still doesn't look comfortable in this system, and glaring gaffes have appeared to contribute to his minus-9 rating.

Worst trend: Lack of dominance

> > The Penguins have surrendered the opening goal in 11 games, going 5-5-1 in those contests. Also, they have trailed after two periods in seven games.

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