Despite not scoring, Penguins' Armstrong has big hand in surge
Saturday, February 10, 2007
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
TORONTO -- His slump doesn't come up in conversation much anymore. Nowhere near as often as it did in the early weeks of the season.
Perhaps that's because there are more positive streaks on which to focus, such as the 10-0-2 surge the Penguins are on as they prepare to face Toronto at 7:08 p.m. today at the Air Canada Centre.
Or maybe because it lost its shock value a while ago, and has simply become part of the landscape of the 2006-07 season.
Colby Armstrong, who entered the season as the right winger on the Penguins' No. 1 line, does not have a goal in his past 10 games. Which makes this drought a lot like the ones of 22 and 12 games that he endured earlier.
Armstrong, who plays with Max Talbot and Erik Christensen on the third line, has six goals in 52 games, hardly the pace anyone anticipated when he had Sidney Crosby feeding him pucks toward the end of last season and in the early weeks of this one.
"It's something you have to battle through," Armstrong said.
How the struggle to regain his scoring touch will play out remains to be seen. Armstrong, though, maintains his place in the lineup -- and in the team's plans -- because of the other facets of his game.
"We want him to contribute offensively, like everyone," coach Michel Therrien said. "But, in the meantime, he's having a huge role on our team.
"Killing penalties, being a good checker, making sure he plays the system well, being a tough guy to play against. That's his bread and butter. As long as he does that, he's going to be fine."
Whether opposing players will be is another matter. Armstrong made that point rather emphatically nine days ago, when he laid out Montreal captain Saku Koivu with a crushing hit.
Koivu was focused on the puck behind the goal line and seemed oblivious to Armstrong closing in on him until a split-second before Armstrong drove his right shoulder into Koivu and sent him hurtling.
"I saw him coming around [the net] with his head down," Armstrong said. "It didn't matter if it was Koivu. I really didn't notice who it was at the time. I just finished my check on him."
Koivu had barely touched the ice when Canadiens defenseman Sheldon Souray went after Armstrong, picking up 27 minutes worth of penalties for his trouble,
Armstrong wasn't surprised that a Montreal player came after him -- "I was expecting that," he said -- but made it clear that he won't alter his game in any way because of such threats to his well-being.
"I have to play in-your-face," he said. "I can't stop doing that, or I won't be here. I have to keep playing hard."
That's a given with Armstrong, regardless of his role or line. But being bumped from the top line to the No. 3 unit stung. Not because it bruised his ego, but because it underscored that he was not generating the offense his teammates and bosses expected.
"It's obviously a little upsetting at first," he said. "Not because of going from first to third, but because of the stats and production, things I obviously wish could have been going a little better."
Therrien pointed out that Armstrong had similar scoring problems when they were together with the Penguins' minor-league team in Wilkes-Barre two years ago, and Armstrong noted that his touch eventually returned.
"It's part of the game, I guess," he said. "Once it got going, things started going pretty well. Hopefully, I can get a few bounces here, do it for a few games in a row. Just keep working, and, hopefully, things turn around."
It helps, he allowed, that Crosby, Jordan Staal and Mark Recchi, who moved into his old spot on the top line, and others are showing up on the score sheet regularly. And especially that the Penguins are accumulating points without any significant offensive contribution from him.
"It's great that [Staal] is still putting the puck in the net like crazy," he said. "[Evgeni Malkin], [Recchi], Sid. ]Ryan Whitney] has been hot. [Sergei Gonchar] is doing his thing."
And maybe, just maybe, Armstrong is doing his. It could be that he was miscast as a top-six forward, that his game is best-suited to filling a blue-collar role.
"We always figured that Colby Armstrong would become a good checker in this league, a good third-line guy," Therrien said. "That was the plan, and that's what he's doing right now.