OUT OF THE GATES: December to remember

When the 2009-10 schedule was released, this stretch leading up to the holiday break stuck out to me as a time where the Penguins would prove themselves.

They haven’t disappointed.

After dropping back to back home games against Chicago and Carolina, the Penguins have strung together five straight wins. Most recently they took care of Philadelphia — which is always difficult given the rivalry — in a home and home series and then traveled to Buffalo and won in a shootout, 2-1.

In one week the Penguins have proven they are every bit as good as last year, if not better. And with games against New Jersey tonight and Ottawa on Wednesday, the Penguins can enter the three-day holiday break playing their strongest hockey of the year.

What’s scary is Pittsburgh has shown they still have a lot of improving to do.

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Malkin passing up his shots

Only in rare cases does four points in five games raise an eyebrow in concern.

But when you’re Evgeni Malkin, things are just different.

The Russian superstar has been held without a goal in the last five games. His trio of assists against Colorado on Dec. 3 combined with another against Chicago a week ago are the only points he has registered in the last five contests.

Malkin has been caught passing in situations he would normally shoot, and in Pittsburgh’s recent 3-2 win at Montreal, passed up on four different opportunities in which he had an open look to shoot. In each situation he passed and in each situation the result was nothing.

“Sometimes, in trying to make the right play, he might look to pass when his confidence is lower,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “He is a guy who attacks, attacks through the defense and attacks the net. When he is shooting the puck he is a threat to score and he is a better player all around. Getting him focused in the right direction is what he is trying to do right now.”

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Montreal presents difficult scenario

All at once, Montreal presents a potentially dangerous situation along with a chance for the Penguins to change their recent struggles.

Pittsburgh Penguins (20-10-1, 41 pts.) at Montreal Canadiens (15-14-2, 32 pts.)

No team in the National Hockey League is better than the Canadiens at protecting an early lead — they are 10-1-0 when scoring the first goal this year.

That could spell tragedy for a Pittsburgh team that has fallen down 1-0 in the last six games and in seven of the last eight. However, knowing Montreal’s success when scoring first could serve the Penguins with the motivation needed to play a strong first period and earn an early lead of their own.

“They have a great crowd there so I’m sure they get momentum from that,” Sidney Crosby said when asked about why it has been so hard to come back on the Canadiens this year. “I don’t think we’re going to think about it a whole lot. We wanna make sure that we start well. Sometimes you can have a great first period and be down 1-0. We’ll look for our play to be where it needs to be and usually, if that’s the case, we’ll come out with the lead.”

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Early struggles continue to haunt Pens

Sidney Crosby’s comments after Tuesday’s practice could apply to any of the Penguins recent performances.

“I mean, you’re gonna lose games. Sometimes you’re gonna play well and lose games,” Crosby said. “Other times you’re not gonna be happy with your play and I think last game would fit in to that category. We weren’t happy with the way we played, especially the first period. So we’ll be looking to bounce back here in Montreal.”

What made Monday night different from recent games was that the team felt compelled to hold a closed-door meeting to discuss the slow starts. Coming out of the meeting, it appears evident the problems have been mental and focus-driven.

“I think that we can be certain and pretty clear that, physically, we were ready to work,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “But a lot of work is mentally applying yourself. That’s where we were not as sharp as we needed to be.

“That’s something we talked about this morning … and have to be better at in the future.”

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Pens aim for better start Saturday

The Penguins were, admittedly, a bit sluggish in the opening two periods of Thursday night’s 4-1 win against Colorado.

Chicago Blackhawks (17-6-3, 37 points) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (20-9-0, 40 points)

Even though they outshot the Avalanche, the Penguins were outplayed and outpaced for much of the opening two frames. A goal with seven seconds left in the first period allowed them to get on the board and a errant whistle in the second negated a Colorado goal to keep the game tied, 1-1, going in to the third.

“I don’t think we were happy with our game the first two periods,” Bill Guerin said Thursday. “We didn’t get to our system, to our style of play. In the third period we made a conscious effort to do it.”

Good teams can get away with that and win when playing opponents that aren’t stout defensively — such as Colorado’s and its goals against total, which stands at 93 this year. However, when the Chicago Blackhawks visit Mellon Arena Saturday, the Penguins likely won’t have that same benefit.

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Free Agency Updates

We’ll list notable free-agent signings here.  For other, more detailed updates, visit Faceoff-Factor.  Those guys are documenting every player all day.

We’ll be shedding light on notable players.

Free Agent Signings

6/30 — Johnny Oduya re-signs with New Jersey.  The deal is for 3 years and worth $10.5 million
6/30 — Rob Blake re-signs with San Jose for one year at $3.5 million
6/30 — Jay Bouwmeester signs with Calgary for five years for a total of $33.4 million

7/1 — Daniel and Henrik Sedin re-sign with Vancouver.  Both contracts are identical: $6.1 million a year for five years
7/1 — Alexei Kovalev re-signs with Montreal for two years, $8.8 million
7/1 — Radek Dvorak re-signs with Florida for $1.7 million a year for two years
7/1 — Marian Hossa signs with Chicago: 12 years, $62.4 million
7/1 — Ty Conklin signs with St. Louis: 2 years $2.6 million
7/1 — Dwayne Roloson signs with the Islanders: 2 years $5 million
7/1 — David Booth signs with Florida: 6 years $25.5 million
7/1 — Mike Knuble signs with Washington: 2 years $5.6 million
7/1 — Donald Brashear signs with the Rangers: 2 years, $2.8 million
7/1 — Scott Niedermayer signs with Anaheim: 1 year, $6 million
7/1 — Eric Cole signs with Carolina: 2 years, $5.8 million
7/1 — Scott Clemmensen signs with Florida: 3 years, $3.6 million
7/1 — Hal Gill a Canadien: 2 years, $4.5 million
7/1 — PENGUINS SIGN MICHAEL RUPP: 2 YEARS, $1.65 MILLION
7/1 — David Koci signs with Colorado: $575,000, 1 year
7/1 — Mike Cammalleri signs with Montreal: 5 years, $30 million
7/1 — Mike Komisarek signs with Toronto: 5 years, $22.5 million
7/1 — Steve Sullivan remain a Predator: 2 years, $7.5 million
7/1 — Mathieu Garon signs with Columbus: 2 years, $2.4 million
7/1 — Marian Gaborik signs with the Rangers: 5 years, $37.5 million
7/1 — Brian Gionta signs with Montreal: 5 years, $25 million
7/1 — Chris Neil re-signs with Ottawa: four years, $8 million
7/1 — John Madden signs with Chicago: 1 year, $2.75 million
7/1 — Martin Havlat signs with Minnesota: 6 years, $30 million

7/2 — Mark Recchi re-signs with Boston: 1 year, $1 million
7/2 — Nik Antropov signs with Atlanta: 4 years, $16 million
7/2 — Adrian Aucoin signs with Phoenix: 1 year, $2.25 million
7/2 — Mikhail Grabovski re-signs with Toronto: 3 years, $8.7 million
7/2 — Rob Scuderi signs with Los Angeles: 4 years, $13.6 million
7/2 — Jordan Leopold signs with Florida: 1 year, $1.75 million

7/3 — Ryan Clowe re-signs with San Jose: 4 years, $15 million
7/3 — Ville Leino re-signs with Detroit: 2 years, ???
7/3 — PENGUINS SIGN NATE GUENIN: 1 year, $500,000
7/3 — Rangers signs Tyler Arnason and Corey Locke
7/3 — Mikael Samuelsson signs with Vancouver: 3 years, $7.5 million
7/3 — RUSLAN FEDOTENKO SIGNS WITH PITTSBURGH: 1 year, $1.8 million

Elsewhere, Dany Heatley is still supposedly being dealt around by Ottawa.  Yesterday it was reported that Heatley was traded to Edmonton.  That was denied by the winger, who currently has a no-trade clause that he has yet to lift.

Chris & Dan | PPT

Pens sign Craig Adams

The Pittsburgh Penguins have signed Craig Adams to a two-year deal.  His contract will pay him $550,000 each year for two years, which is a decrease from his $600,000 salary of this past season.

88035039MH119_Stanley_Cup_F

That’s great news for the Penguins as far as signing other guys goes.  We figured he could earn around $750,000 to $1 million.

Adams scored 3 goals and added two assists in the playoff run.  He’s a solid fourth-line center that we were hoping would get re-signed.  His signing means the Penguins are all set down the middle, with each line’s center under contract — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Adams.

Chicago placed Adams on waivers and the Pens picked him up.  Maybe the Blackhawks should have kept the guy, considering they were knocked out in Western Conference Finals.  Solid player, solid guy.

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