“I’m not going to share the details of the discussion I had with the players afterward. One thing I did say is the answers are in this room,” — Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan.
The only answers available to the Penguins are indeed in the locker room. That’s not a revelation. With the trade deadline in the rearview mirror and no great prospects in the AHL beating down to the door to the NHL, these are the Pittsburgh Penguins, for better or worse.
“We’ve got to try to find a way to celebrate some of the small successes here so we can build our team confidence and build our team attitude, get our swagger back,” Sullivan said. “Right now, we don’t have a lot of it, and we’ve got to get it back.”
Yes, things were that bad in the Penguins locker room on Sunday that notoriously intense and straight-laced Mike Sullivan is looking for little things to rebuild the Penguins apparently shattered confidence. The team has lost eight of 10 games, and the room feels much like it did in November 2018 when Penguins GM Jim Rutherford angrily dealt Carl Hagelin to the LA Kings less for Tanner Pearson and more to shake up the Penguins core.
On the first day of Daylight Savings time in which the sun greeted most of us who sprang out of bed before the crack of noon, there was little sunlight in the Penguins room. Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz spoke in hushed tones even as he said the right words.
“We’ve done it this year. We’ve shown we can do it,” Schultz said so softly it was barely audible. “We’ll be fine.”
Schultz was not exactly convincing.
Adversity is Winning
Carolina delivered yet another gut punch to the Penguins, which well deserved it. The Penguins were in the game until they very quickly weren’t. As adversity hit, the Penguins quit.
The team which overcame staggering adversity for months was again quickly swallowed up by it. And that’s the first thing which should be placed on the table: The fragile Penguins are broken. They lack pushback both literally and figuratively, externally and internally.
The troubling aspects are not the losses to Washington and Carolina. Nor is it the most troubling aspect of this free fall, which included being outplayed by Buffalo. In the course of an 82-game schedule, efforts will surge and crest. Players will have streaks, good and bad. But what is most troubling is the team-wide malaise which has gripped the Penguins.
As Evgeni Malkin admitted on Saturday, the Penguins expected to be better when they finally got healthy. As players returned to the lineup, the players expected those players to make them better. Role players looked to Malkin and to Sidney Crosby instead of themselves.
“We try to play easy,” Malkin said.
Accountability and motivation became expectation, and now it’s become a mess. Things are spiraling out of control.
Malkin and Hornqvist both said, “It starts (Sunday).
But it didn’t. The Penguins continued to leave players uncovered. They didn’t pay attention to details and leaving pinching defensemen caught up ice without a forward to stem the rush. The Penguins are making the number of odd-man rushes they yielded last season look small.
However, the play is not inexplicable. The Pittsburgh Penguins played well over their heads for months. Players like Teddy Blueger and Sam Lafferty, Jared McCann, and Bryan Rust were out of their skates on the puck. And Rust filled the net.
Let’s be brutally honest. McCann apparently isn’t a 20-goal scorer. Rust is a valuable member of the team, but more players have to fill the net, and Rust’s 40-goal pace was nice but wasn’t going to last.
In the last four weeks, how often have the Penguins third or fourth lines pinned an opponent deep for 30 seconds to create momentum? Or scored a big goal? Such things have happened but in inconsistent intervals.
McCann needs to be a bigger part of the Penguins attack, too.
The rushes of adrenaline pumped into the Penguins lineup by players who really shouldn’t even be here today were, in fact, temporary. Even goalie Tristan Jarry who made the NHL All-Star Game, was burned for six goals on Sunday. Several were very stoppable. It was his worst game of the season.
The Penguins defense is finally healthy and playing its worst hockey of the season. The downward trend of Justin Schultz has continued. When the Penguins are playing well, the mobility and puck-moving Penguins defense can amplify their momentum. When things are not going well, the Penguins defense lacks the shutdown component to smother the opponent until the Penguins can reset.
Marcus Pettersson is better with a tough defenseman, as he was with Jack Johnson or Erik Gudbranson, not a mobile defender like John Marino or Schultz. The Penguins net is far too accessible with Pettersson and a puck mover.
Kris Letang’s game has again become very un-simplified. He’s better when he keeps it simple.
The psyche and confidence of a team are fragile enough. As defeats have mounted, and successes become fewer, the Pittsburgh Penguins are confused. They believed when players returned to the lineup, they would be a better team. They failed to realize they already were a better team because they simplified their game and because they played with abandon and aggression to make up for their lack of talent.
“We’re just a little bit disconnected. We’re not executing, and we’re not anticipating. And a lot of it is the play away from the puck,” Sullivan said. Just the puck support coming to the puck and provide options for them.”
Puck support and playing hard away from the puck are not confidence issues. Those are want-to issues, which are deep-seated and long-standing.
March is the wrong time of the year to play the worst hockey of the season. Carolina is now just five points behind the Penguins for the final playoff spot. A few more fits and stumbles, and the potentially special Penguins season will end before tax day.
Confidence is funny.
“You can get it back quickly,” Sullivan said on Sunday. That’s true. But the Penguins mistakes and shortcomings are not a matter of confidence or lack thereof. Their failures are the same as they’ve experienced in the past. That’s not a coincidence.
Let’s be honest about the Penguins. They still have potential and time, and the things they must realize and adopt, again, are hockey simplicities. It spoke volumes when they did it. And it speaks even louder when players do not adopt what made them successful.
It’s not the coach. Nor is it not a lost faceoff or a turnover. The Pittsburgh Penguins have a lot of players trending in the wrong direction, and it’s not confidence.