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Milbury: Penguins' slump not surprising

by Shawn P. Roarke
NHL on NBC studio analyst Mike Milbury -- a former NHL player, coach and general manager -- has a wealth of hockey experience, so he understands just what is happening to the Pittsburgh Penguins these days.

The Penguins, who came within two wins of winning the Stanley Cup last season, have staggered through the first half of the 2008-09 season. If the season were to end before Friday night's game against Anaheim, the 21-20-4 Penguins would not be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Milbury is not all that surprised to see the Penguins in such a precarious position.

"I was surprised that Pittsburgh played as well as it did early on," Milbury told while breaking down Sunday's NHL on NBC telecast between Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers (12:30 p.m. ET). "There were 10 or so changes from the team that went to the Final. Not only did they lose (Marian) Hossa, but also the players they traded to get Hossa. Changes like that can not be overcome overnight. It takes time."

Hossa, who was acquired from Atlanta at the trade deadline to ride shotgun for Sidney Crosby, joined Detroit as a free agent this summer.

But there is almost a half-season of hockey left, and Milbury believes the Penguins can turn things around.

"Pittsburgh has certainly had some problems and they are dinged up," Milbury said. "Right now, they are a desperate team, trying to find the form that got them to within a couple of games of winning the Stanley Cup last year.

"But with their top-end talent, I have no doubt that Pittsburgh will find their way out of it. Every team in this League has hit a rough patch at some point this year -- except maybe Boston and San Jose."

With that said, it should come as no surprise that Milbury can't wait to see the Penguins tussle against the Rangers, in Sunday's NHL on NBC matchup at Mellon Arena.
He expects to see a desperate Penguins team, backed by a rabid Pittsburgh crowd that understands the dire straits in which its team finds itself at this juncture.

"I think Sidney Crosby was right when he says they have to play with a playoff mentality starting right now," Milbury said. "That's exactly what they have to do now."

Crosby's status for the game is up in the air. He suffered a lower-body injury in Wednesday night's loss to Washington and is listed as day-to-day.

Milbury knows that if Crosby can go, he will do anything to be in Sunday's lineup. He points not only to the captain's recent comments about desperate times, but also to Crosby's celebrated dust-up recently with Florida's Brett McLean as proof that Crosby cares.

"I think he has shown some signs of frustration and, to me, that shows his human side," says Milbury, who has the reputation of being pretty feisty himself. "It shows the degree to which he cares and just how much he wants to win."

While Milbury doesn't want to see Crosby dropping his mitts on a regular basis, he has no problem with the occasional outburst.

But he is sure Pittsburgh General Manager Ray Shero or coach Michel Therrien already has down with Crosby to discuss some of Crosby's frustrations.

The Penguins are not the only frustrated team that will take to the Mellon Arena ice Sunday afternoon. Despite a season-long flirtation with first place in the Atlantic Division, the Rangers have not played to their potential, riding a red-hot start to their lofty position heading into the All-Star Game.

"To me, the Rangers haven't really had a rhythm all year. Their top-end guys have to be more top. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist has done a great job of keeping them in games this season, but they need more than that."
-- Mike Milbury

New York enters the weekend with a 26-15-4 record, but the team is a mere 4-3-1 since Christmas. Those four wins have come against the Islanders, twice, Ottawa and Pittsburgh. There is a not a playoff team on that list.

"To me, the Rangers haven't really had a rhythm all year," Milbury said. "Their top-end guys have to be more top. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist has done a great job of keeping them in games this season, but they need more than that."

Milbury points to Chris Drury and Scott Gomez as two of the top-end culprits. Both were signed as free agents two years ago and were expected to step into starring roles this season after Jaromir Jagr left for Russia. Instead, both have played far below expectations.

And Milbury doesn't buy the theory that the pressure of being leading men on Broadway is responsible for their downward spirals.
"Drury's been a big player on a number of different big stages and so has Gomez," he said. "It's the same story as in Pittsburgh, they have to find a way to overcome the expectations in New York because there are a lot of expectations on those guys."

Milbury believes he will be able to tell a lot about how Sunday's game will turn out by watching the first few minutes of action.

He says he saw the Penguins play a trapping style at times during a recent loss to the Flyers and he does not believe that suits Pittsburgh's personnel.

"I'll be watching the start of the game to see if Pittsburgh shows a physical side and a skating side because that is when they are at their best," he said. "They are a team that needs to counter-punch."

And the Rangers?

"For the Rangers, I need to see a skating team Sunday," Milbury said. "That's the way they need to play under (coach) Tom Renney. They need to go after it, be aggressive and show their speed. That's such a big part of their club."

In short, Sunday should be an interesting battle between two desperate teams playing for two all-important points. And it's a perfect start jumping-off point for NHL on NBC's eight-game schedule that runs into April.

NHL on NBC's next telecast is Feb. 8 at 12:30 p.m. ET, which is the starting time of all NBC regular-season broadcasts this season.
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