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Injuries, inconsistency create questions for Penguins

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins might have created more questions than answers while advancing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Penguins won their Eastern Conference First Round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets in six games, but did so in less than convincing fashion. The inability to play a full 60-minute game forced the Penguins to come back from two two-goal deficits, caused them to lose two games after holding multigoal leads and had them escape with a 4-3 win in Game 6 Monday after leading 4-0 midway through the third period.

"We didn't play right," forward Evgeni Malkin said. "It's the playoffs. We need to understand how important it is to play 60 minutes. We just a little bit lost focus."

In their most complete effort of the series, the Penguins trailed by one goal entering the first intermission of Game 5 before rebounding for a 3-1 win. Pittsburgh will likely need to match its Game 5 performance when it faces either the New York Rangers or the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Second Round.

Malkin and forward Sidney Crosby, who had been criticized for their lack of production, did provide some answers by series end. Malkin recorded his second career playoff hat trick Monday, while Crosby averaged a point per game.

"You want to shut teams down and close them out," Crosby said. "I thought we found our game a lot more the last two games. I thought we played the way we need to and were on our toes. I think it's one thing to say it and it's another thing to go out there and play that way. We did that here the last couple.

"We need to build off of it, and I think [in] the playoffs, you have to get better as you go along."

Crosby failed to score a goal in the series, but linemate Chris Kunitz, who scored twice in the first round, said that has not been indicative of his play.

"Sid's a machine," Kunitz said. "He's putting [the puck] all over everywhere. He's sharing the puck and he's giving it up for other guys. I think whenever it [scoring a goal] happens for him, I don't think it's a big deal. I don't think you see him worrying about the score sheet too much.

"He goes all over the place. Takes big defensive-zone faceoffs, penalty killing, something you haven't seen him do in the past. I think that's how our team has to look at it."

But just as the Penguins received a boost from their top stars, two players who had a vital role in their series win sustained undisclosed injuries.

Forward Brandon Sutter, whose three postseason goals has him tied with forward Jussi Jokinen and Malkin for the team lead, and forward Joe Vitale, whose forechecking was a primary reason for the Blue Jackets' early offensive struggles in Game 6, each left the game in the third period.

Sutter returned to the bench late in the third, but no update has been provided on either injury.

After having their healthiest lineup in several months earlier in the first round, the Penguins' injury list has ballooned. Defenseman Brooks Orpik, who has been credited as a leader on the back end by fellow Pittsburgh defensemen, and forward Brian Gibbons missed multiple games without an update.

Matt Niskanen, whose eight points has him tied with defenseman Paul Martin for the team lead, has been one of the defensemen to describe Orpik as their leader, but has said Pittsburgh will need to be more focused with or without his on-ice influence.

"We can see we're in the right spots, but we're just not as assertive and not as confident as we normally are once that momentum starts to swing," Niskanen said. "I think good teams, you find ways to get that momentum back quicker. Other teams need to make a push, their season is on the line.

"We have to learn how to get momentum back on our side or at least slow that down quicker and not let it snowball."

The injuries could force the Penguins to rely on their top two lines and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, which became the norm throughout much of the regular season. If that is the case, Fleury might be ready to handle that responsibility.

Despite allowing three or more goals in five of six first-round games, Fleury was impressive throughout his first series win in four years. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has said Fleury's confidence entering the postseason was the most prominent question asked outside of Pittsburgh's locker room.

"I think I've been able to stay relaxed, stay calm and not chase the play too much," Fleury said. "Just let it come and not go for the big saves too much. Just wait for the pucks to come to me."

Several more questions might have been raised for Pittsburgh entering the second round, but Fleury could be on his way to answering the big one.

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