No pain, no gain for Pens? We'll see

PITTSBURGH -- It's a short walk from Shales Café to Pizza Milano on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh, in the shadow of the steel framework that will become the new home of the Pittsburgh Penguins in about 20 months.

This is the heart of Penguin Nation, and regardless of where you go these days, the mood is consistently dark.

Fans have been calling for blood for weeks now, but after a 6-3 throttling at the hands of the visiting -- and, dare we say, hated? -- Washington Capitals on Wednesday, that bloodlust is at a fever pitch.

Coach Michel Therrien is at the top of the list (isn't the coach always at the top of these lists?), although others follow in short order, including GM Ray Shero (why didn't he sign Marian Hossa? Or Ryan Malone? Or someone else?), Miroslav Satan (he's no Marian Hossa), Marian Hossa (turncoat), hometown boy Malone (he signed a seven-year deal with Tampa Bay that we're pretty sure he'd sell his liver to void now) and assorted others.

"It's hard for everybody because we feel we're better than we've played," Shero told ESPN.com in an interview this week.

The Penguins woke up Thursday morning in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, just one point out of the final playoff spot. Rarely, though, has one point loomed as large given that everyone and their dog believed the Penguins were a lock to make the playoffs for the third straight season after advancing to the Stanley Cup finals last spring.

Yet Pittsburgh is an interesting case study, possibly the perfect illustration of how short-term pain may be a necessary evil in the new NHL, even for the game's elite teams. That's not going to make the folks at Shales Café or Pizza Milano happy, but the rocky road the Pens are traveling this season has camouflaged the notion that this still is a team capable of being a contender for years to come.

At least, that's the theory.

Let's start with this.

Any team that boasts the NHL's top two scorers (Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby) and solid secondary talent like Jordan Staal, Ryan Whitney and Marc-Andre Fleury should make the playoffs. And it says here the Penguins will indeed be a playoff team come mid-April, despite a prolonged slump that has seen them lose six of seven at home and go 9-16-1 since a torrid start to November.

They'll get veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar back in about a month. His loss from the defensive corps and dressing-room community has been devastating. Couple that with Whitney's long absence due to foot surgery (he scored his first goal of the season Wednesday night), and it's ample evidence why the Penguins are 25th in goals-against per game. Last season, they were third in the conference in that important category.

"Not having Gonchar is huge in the room, too. He's a leader in his own way," former Tampa Bay Lightning GM Jay Feaster told ESPN.com this week.

One thing leads to another, and without Gonchar and Whitney, the pressure on Marc-Andre Fleury to be sensational in goal has increased exponentially. After a terrific start to the season, he has, frankly, been just ordinary, with a .904 save percentage and 3.01 goals-against average (35th among NHL netminders). Last season Ty Conklin performed miracles when Fleury was hurt, but Conklin is in Detroit, and backup Dany Sabourin hasn't provided the points to keep the Pens in the playoff bracket.

"They're just not getting the same kind of goaltending," Feaster said. "That's just a bottom-line thing."

The goaltending numbers should improve, though, when Whitney gets back into a groove and Gonchar returns, and there is the benefit of having youngsters Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang play a lot more than they might have otherwise.

Up front, though, is where much of the criticism falls at the feet of Shero.

You don't have to go too far to find folks, inside the game and out, who are less than enamored of Satan. He's a proven goal scorer but has never been high on the list of intangibles like character and heart.

The fact Satan (just 16 goals) has failed to jell in a meaningful way with Crosby suggests Shero made the right call by offering Satan just a one-year deal, although that fact often gets lost amid the criticism that Satan is here at all.

Could Shero have had Michael Ryder, who is enjoying a renaissance in Boston? At the time of Ryder's signing last summer, the Bruins were criticized for extending a three-year, $12 million deal to a guy who was a healthy scratch in Montreal, so it's hard to criticize Shero for taking a pass.

How about Kristian Huselius? Not much of a bargain in Columbus, where Huselius is on pace for fewer than 30 goals after signing a four-year deal at $4.75 million annually. Radim Vrbata got a three-year, $9 million deal out of Tampa, but he was so miserable that they sent him home to the Czech Republic. And of course, there's the granddaddy of contract gaffes, the four-year Sean Avery debacle in Dallas.

Malone was a big part of the Pens' success last season, bringing a nice blend of toughness and scoring (he had 27 goals), and Feaster said the lack of team toughness is one of the biggest differences between last season and this campaign. Yet Shero could not have touched the seven-year, $31.5 million deal Malone signed in Tampa. Even if he'd paid $3 million to $4 million annually for three or four years, it would have made it more difficult, if not impossible, to lock up Staal, as he did a few weeks ago. Staal, at age 20, is a significantly more important long-term asset than the 29-year-old Malone.

Which brings us to Therrien.

The Penguins coach is the lightning rod for criticism in Pittsburgh, yet we admit a bias toward the crusty Montreal native. We loved how he called out his players when he first arrived in Pittsburgh in December 2005, suggesting they were overpaid and, at times, trying to be the worst defensive team in the NHL. What he has accomplished in Pittsburgh during the period since is nothing short of miraculous.

Critics will suggest anyone could coach a team with talent like Crosby, Staal, Malkin, Whitney and Fleury. That's simply not true. Lots of talented teams don't get to the Stanley Cup finals. Just ask Ron Wilson, who couldn't get the San Jose Sharks over the hump the past few seasons. There are rumors Crosby is at odds with Therrien, yet sources close to the team tell ESPN.com that simply isn't the case.

We didn't lose everything in a month. … In a month, I didn't become a dumb coach. I didn't lose any faith in my players. Sometimes, we lose our focus, but not our skill.

-- Pens coach Michel Therrien

Having Crosby on board is crucial -- just as it is crucial that Alex Ovechkin and Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau share a vision in Washington, or that Jarome Iginla buys into what Mike Keenan is selling in Calgary. If other players have issues with the coach, well, that's life.
Show us a coach players universally love, and we'll show you players holding a putter on April 15.

Therrien shrugs his shoulders and says he doesn't read or listen to the voices who suggest Pat Quinn and others are ready to take his place behind the Pens' bench. "Honestly, I don't read much of what goes on," he said.

He pointed out he sometimes employs a power-play unit whose oldest player is 23 (Goligoski).

"It's probably the youngest power play in the league, but people don't recognize that," Therrien said. "But as a coach, I do. With young leadership, I think they're learning through adversity. There's no doubt in my mind it's going to make us a better team. It did last year, it did two years ago.

"We're definitely challenged as a team. I'm challenged as a coach."

Crosby, for one, appears to agree.

"It's easy to be a good teammate when things are great, so we'll have a good test here for the group we have, and I think we're confident we'll stick together, we'll get out of it," he said. "I don't think there's anyone doubting that. I think we're all confident with our chemistry that we'll find ways to get things back on track."

Trial by fire? You bet. But Therrien has been reminding them they are still a team that has had great success in the not-too-distant past.

"We didn't lose everything in a month. That's what I told the players," Therrien said. "In a month, I didn't become a dumb coach. I didn't lose any faith in my players. Sometimes, we lose our focus, but not our skill."

Since the end of the lockout, none of the teams that have competed in the Stanley Cup finals has won a playoff round the following season. Carolina and Edmonton both missed the playoffs in 2007, while Ottawa and Anaheim were both dispatched in the first round last spring.

The challenge for the Penguins is to avoid becoming a team like Ottawa, which has fallen precipitously in the short period since its first trip to the Cup finals in 2007 and is closer to being a draft lottery team than a playoff team.

Shero has locked up his core pieces -- Whitney, Fleury, Crosby, Malkin, Brooks Orpik and Staal -- for the long haul, and has done so at an impressively economic level.

Feaster noted that if the Penguins just make it to the playoffs and push a team to six or seven games, maybe that's a good outcome for them this season given all of the factors at play. It doesn't mean they aren't positioned to return to contender status quickly.

"It may just be that maybe it's not going to be your year," Feaster said.

The issue for Shero, predicted Feaster, will be to resist the temptation that comes from external pressure to do something rash.

"I think the biggest challenge Ray has is [to] have patience," said Feaster. "I think the biggest thing is that you don't let the pressure around you cause you to throw one of the babies out when you throw the bathwater out."

You can bank on the fact other GMs will be trying to pry Staal out of Shero's grasp if the Penguins continue to flounder and pressure mounts to find a true winger to play with Crosby. (Malkin, a natural center, has been playing with Crosby of late.)

"I've said all along I have really good faith in the kids in that room," Shero said. "I believe they trust each other."

Now we'll find out if that's enough.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.