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Penguins begin season with familiar offensive woes

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins know they must be better.

Through two games, the Penguins have looked eerily similar to the team that struggled through the final month of the 2014-15 regular season before getting eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the New York Rangers in five games of Eastern Conference First Round. After failing to get any of their 37 shots past Dallas Stars goalie Antti Niemi in a 3-0 loss Thursday, the Penguins scored once in a 2-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes Saturday.

Pittsburgh faced similar issues last spring, when it averaged 1.78 regulation goals over its final 18 games of the regular season. It's early, but that lack of production has at least temporarily seeped into this October, and the task won't get any easier in the home opener against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; CITYM, RDS, ROOT).

Carey Price and the Canadiens come to Pittsburgh after winning their first three games while scoring 10 goals, tied for second in the NHL behind the Rangers. Price has made 55 saves on 58 shots through two starts, which doesn't seem to bode well for a Penguins team in need of a confidence boost.

Pittsburgh's defense has been solid, outside of a few odd-man rushes allowed. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been stellar at times, particularly late in the third period against the Coyotes when he and Arizona goalie Mike Smith dueled with spectacular saves to keep Pittsburgh one goal behind.

That isn't enough.

"I thought we have the looks, we have the chances, we just aren't converting right now," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. "So we have to get hungry in those scoring areas. I look back at the two games, around the blue paint, we haven't been hungry in those areas. We're there, but I don't think we're battling hard enough to score.

"Against a guy like Price tomorrow night, you've got to be in that paint."

After acquiring forwards Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Sergei Plotnikov and Eric Fehr (currently recovering from elbow surgery) during the offseason, the Penguins offense was, and still is, expected to return to form. Despite Kessel impressing with Pittsburgh's lone goal on nine shots, which is second on the team behind defenseman Kris Letang's 10, the Penguins have yet to recapture their characteristically explosive offense.

That starts with the face of the franchise. Captain Sidney Crosby has attempted one shot, which was blocked, through two games. Forward Bobby Farnham is the only other Penguins skater without a shot on goal.

The last time Crosby went two straight games without a shot on goal was Dec. 14 and 15, 2010, against the Philadelphia Flyers and Rangers. It's only been two games, but needless to say, Crosby having zero goals, zero points and zero shots through those two games is less than ideal.

He doesn't feel like he's passed on many opportunities, however.

"I look at two games, I've probably passed up on one in Phoenix, I passed to [Kessel] on a 2-on-1, but other than that, I don't think I've really had any chances to let one go," Crosby said. "If I have, it's been blocked. So we have to find ways to get to those areas. It's just a matter of working to get to those traffic areas."

The Penguins power play, which provided one of their greatest areas of concern late last season, has been equally inefficient to start this season. Pittsburgh has failed to score on seven chances through two games while attempting to disperse their talent across two units by splitting Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who has five shots and four penalty minutes.

Not until late against Arizona did Pittsburgh reunite Crosby and Malkin, with Kessel, Letang and forward Patric Hornqvist filling the remaining three spots. But Crosby said he thinks the lack of scoring isn't indicative to how the power play has performed, and Kessel agreed while making providing a simple answer.

"I thought we had a couple good looks on the power play," Kessel said. "You just have to make the plays and get a lot of shots."

Johnston made one adjustment to Pittsburgh's lines at practice Monday, moving David Perron to the second line with Malkin and Hornqvist in place of Plotnikov, who skated alongside Bonino at center and Beau Bennett to their right.

Plotnikov has performed noticeably better while on the third line, rather than the second, through his first two NHL games, something Johnston has noticed. Perron made it clear he didn't think the move was worthy of discussion by saying, "If we're going to [discuss lines] all year, it's not going to be a fun year."

Hornqvist echoed that sentiment.

"We have to get our working boots on and get going here," he said. "We can't play like we did in Phoenix. It doesn't matter who you play with, we all have to play the same way here."

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