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Kovacevic: Penguins' answers within

| Monday, Feb. 20, 2012

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Can you just picture Ray Shero cringing all through the Penguins' lifeless, often laughable 6-2 loss to the cellar-dwelling Buffalo Sabres on Sunday at First Niagara Center?

Can you imagine how tempted he must have been, with the NHL's trade deadline just a week away, to frantically tap away at his speed-dials in search of a skilled winger, a big defenseman, even a backup goaltender to replace the still-leaky Brent Johnson?

Yeah, I can see Shero cringing. Maybe even cursing.

But calling out of desperation?

No chance.

Shero didn't get to be the general manager who built a roster this solid — 33-21-5 despite leading the league in injuries and missing Sidney Crosby — by responding reflexively to one long afternoon. Or even a lackluster stretch, such as the 4-4-1 run since that eight-game winning streak ended.

This is the GM who watched and waited a full year to acquire winger James Neal in the franchise's best trade since Craig Patrick's pickup of Alexei Kovalev in 1998, then went through six weeks of talks to sign Neal on Sunday to a six-year, $30 million extension.

The man knows what he's doing.

Which is why I'll be fine if, as I'm expecting, the Penguins aren't active at the deadline for the first time in Shero's career.

This is what Shero told me shortly before faceoff: "We're playing well, getting healthy, and that means more than anything. If I could get a 40-goal scorer or something that makes sense, I'd do that. But ..."

He didn't complete the thought, but he didn't need to. The current trade market, as viewed by this front office, ranges from awful to abysmal. The only 40-goal type is Columbus' Rick Nash, and the cap-challenged Penguins aren't in on those talks. Defensemen are scarcer still. And goaltending couldn't be called a need with Marc-Andre Fleury as the starter.

Again, look past Sunday.

Assume that Crosby returns — Shero described the captain as "busting his behind" to do that — and check out the top three lines: Evgeni Malkin will stay between Neal and Chris Kunitz, unless the team loses its collective mind. Crosby could skate with Pascal Dupuis and Steve Sullivan. Jordan Staal could be back with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. And this isn't taking into account that Dan Bylsma can mix and match, including bumping Staal up as he did a couple times Sunday.

All healthy, it's as good a group of forwards as any in the East.

As Shero suggested, another sniper would be welcome. Maybe even an older one, a la Gary Roberts or Bill Guerin. But I don't want to see another Alexei Ponikarovsky or Kovalev — or anyone named Alexei, really — added to sour things. Oh, and there isn't much on the rental market, either.

If the Penguins want to avoid more outcomes like Sunday, here are a few suggestions:

> > Play like you mean it.

That's as embarrassing an effort as they've put out all winter, in stark contrast to the 6-4 victory 24 hours earlier in Philadelphia. Kris Letang correctly summarized it: "We didn't even show up."

> > Get more from Brooks Orpik.

It's one thing to clamor for a big, tough, net-front defenseman. It's another not to get the most from the best you've got.

Johnson allowed goals on Buffalo's first two shots, but Orpik paved the way for each, first by deflecting a pass into the slot, next by allowing 5-foot-9 Derek Roy to push him back on a rush. Roy should have been seeing stars, not celebrating.

> > Bench Paul Martin.

And do it now. He's been terrible, and he isn't getting better by suffering more minus-4 messes like Sunday.

I asked Bylsma afterward if a benching has been considered, and he replied that the minus-4 was not indicative of Martin's day and that Martin "had one of his better games."

Sadly, that might be true.

> > Raise a fuss next month.

No one will be talking about this, but the best non-Crosby thing that could happen to the Penguins between now and the playoffs is for the NHL to finally address the game's glaringly obvious relapse into hooking, holding and other obstruction.

To be clear, obstruction had nothing to do with the loss Sunday. But it hurts the Penguins in the broader sense of their system and roster makeup, especially on defense. They're built for skating, for mobility.

The NHL's general managers meet next month, and the outcry against Terry Gregson, the league's dinosaur-in-chief of officiating, is expected to be broad and vocal.

In the meantime, don't expect much to change on or off the ice.

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