PITTSBURGH — It is time for the Penguins to flip the switch. They agree.
Yet they squandered a two-goal lead, at home, to the Montreal Canadiens before rallying for a 5-3 win over one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference.
Justin Schultz sat in his locker stall following the Penguins win. He could smile because the Penguins won. He grimaced and shook his head when Pittsburgh Hockey Now asked if the Penguins’ Stanley Cup experience afforded the team more patience and less urgency at this time point of the season.
“No. We want it right now,” said Schultz. “You want to get some momentum going. There are less than 10 games left.”
How good the Penguins can be or how good they want to be is not yet known. Perhaps even to them.
Since the NHL trade deadline, the Penguins have not shown the necessary heart or intensity to do the little things which win hockey games. “Details” are what Mike Sullivan calls them. Puck management. Finishing checks. Playing stiff along the wall and winning puck battles.
Those are the “details,” and those are things the Penguins are not doing, which is frustrating Sullivan.
“We’ve gotta get better at playing on the right side of the puck, making sure we have numbers back, backtracking and all of the things you do to win in the playoffs,” Schultz said.
The Penguins have been mediocre since the Feb. 26 trade deadline. The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions are 6-4-1. It has been a mix of good games, bad games, wins with mediocre efforts, and a few losses with embarrassing efforts.
Surely losing Ian Cole and Ryan Reaves could not have gutted the team to such a degree. Surely adding a player like Derick Brassard should bolster the offensive production, not hinder it.
Underperforming Wingers & Flat Lines
On paper, the team is one of the best, if not the best in the NHL. They have the best four-deep center group in the league, a right wing sniper playing the best hockey of his career, and depth throughout the lineup.
But, on paper doesn’t count.
The problems in the forward crew are growing. Top-line wingers like Jake Guentzel are not producing, not consistently responsible in their zone nor are they hard on the puck. An inconsistent third line anchored by Brassard and Phil Kessel has not clicked.
Being a fearsome group on paper doesn’t help when wingers cannot or will not win enough puck battles. It doesn’t help when not enough players will do the dirty work to create space for talented centers.
Before his three-point outburst Wednesday, Guentzel had three points in his last 10 games, one point in his previous five games. No goals. He’s been soft. The Penguins need more stat lines from Guentzel like Wednesday, and they need stronger play.
And, until proven otherwise, there is no evidence Kessel and Brassard are compatible. Sullivan should strongly consider a line shuffle. The pair has been together for 10 games. Kessel has just one primary assist on a Brassard goal, back on March 3. Brassard has not yet had a primary assist on a Kessel goal.
Defense & Letang Factors
The Penguins’ team defense has allowed fast teams to play on the rush and plodding teams space to create shots and opportunities. That’s not on entirely Kris Letang, no matter how many angry tweets zip across cyberspace.
Letang is not playing poorly. Confirmation bias says otherwise, but Letang is also not playing great.
The Letang reality is that his highs are not as high as they were in the past but his mistakes are still present. He is a net positive for the Penguins, and the playoffs may bring out the gritty, dynamic version for which fans have been waiting.
A dynamic Letang plays with the recklessness required to be successful but also the recklessness which led to an injury sheet longer than the list of potholes the city of Pittsburgh will have to fix next week.
No player could benefit more from ‘flipping the switch,’ and no unit could help more than the defense. Both must display better puck management, at very least.
PK Part of the Problem
The Penguins PK slumbered to a 68.8 percent kill rate in March. There aren’t secrets to successful penalty killing. The PK is about winning puck battles, keeping sticks in the lanes, hard skating, big saves and clearing the puck.
With Matt Murray back in the lineup, saves should not be an issue.
Everything else is an issue. The PK is emblematic of the broader issues of desire and intensity, or grit. Traditionally, penalty killing is more important in the playoffs than a good power play, and fixing the penalty kill is essential.
A suddenly soft defense. A lax penalty kill, and wingers unwilling or unable to do the dirty jobs to help create offense beside Sidney Crosby, have plagued the Penguins.
The next two games will provide the perfect opportunity. The New Jersey Devils visit Friday and the Philadelphia Flyers will be here on Sunday. Both games are the ideal opportunity to flex their Stanley Cup muscles against young teams who hope to challenge them. Both games are an opportunity to put the upstarts in their place.
And, both games are an opportunity for the young challengers put doubt in the Penguins’ collective head.
We’ll see if the Penguins really want to flip the switch, right now, and we’ll see exactly what the Penguins have when they do. You’ll know not by the scoreboard but by the details and desire. The scoreboard will follow.
For more analysis from the Penguins locker room and the entire Justin Schultz interview, visit PHN Extra, our members-only site