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Penguins Grades: Team Deflated, Cold Reality Sets In



Pittsburgh Penguins game, Sidney Crosby

DALLAS — The Pittsburgh Penguins’ balloon popped at the start of the second period as yet another power play turned into an exasperating carousel of passes and failed zone entries. The Dallas Stars pounced on the emotionally deflated Penguins, driving the Penguins’ playoff aspirations further into the symbolic dirt of the NHL standings.

Dallas scored four unanswered goals before the Penguins found a little life toward the end of the game in a 4-2 Dallas win.

Erik Karlsson, swinging his stick and breaking it over the post with anger and disgust, said it all. Karlsson took the wrong path to the puck carrier, Sam Steel, who walked him for Dallas’ fourth goal. There was nothing more to say.

Must Read: New Script, Different Ending. Stars Beat Penguins 4-2

After recent tough losses, players sat dazed in their locker stalls; anger, confusion, or despair were palpable. Friday night, the Penguins locker room was dejected, without fierce emotion or intense disappointment.

We’ve reached the fifth stage of grief.

They know.

They have no reason to admit it, but … any lingering doubts or hope was eradicated by helplessly watching a better team run over them just as they once did to the bottom feeders.

They’ve thought the chase was over at a few points this season, but the hockey gods pulled them back in as the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders hit lengthy losing stretches, failing to bury the Penguins.

But the inability to muster a challenge until late in the third period told the story of a team bereft of confidence, downtrodden to accept, if not expect, their plight. It took only a little spark in the third period to re-ignite the team.

When they scored the second goal, with about nine minutes remaining– Malkin’s second assist in the low zone behind the net — it seemed to inspire them, but the inspiration came far too late.

“I thought when we got the second goal in the third period, you saw a boost from the group. There was an instant energy on the bench,” Sullivan said. “We had opportunities prior to that, throughout the course of the game, that we didn’t execute that potentially could have given us an opportunity to feed off of.

“And, it’s just an important aspect: Momentum is such a big part of this game.”

The Penguins lit the lamp early in the game. Evgeni Malkin flexed part of his game that he’s underutilized: strength down low. Malkin guarded the puck as his best Jaromir Jagr impersonation, and his line cycled for more than 30 seconds before Michael Bunting lunged head-first to put Malkin’s deft little backhand pass to the back post into the net.

The first 20 minutes were a cautionary tale for the Penguins. They showed superior muscle in the low zone but had trouble getting there. Dallas swung the 1-2-2 heavy against the Penguins breakout but also had the numbers back when the Penguins did get to center.

“I just think we broke down a few too many times defensively, and they were able to capitalize,” a short-spoken Bryan Rust explained.

The Penguins pressed, sometimes overaggressively, as defensemen joined the attack as the fourth stick, only to look up and realize Dallas’s tight puck pressure created a three-on-two.

Dallas had approximately five odd-man rushes in the first period: a pair of two-on-ones and a trio of three-on-twos. Somewhat fortunately for the Penguins, Dallas had a bad case of passing up good shots for a perfect play.

The Penguins can relate, but Dallas kept attacking. The Penguins did not.

Whatever the Penguins accomplished in the first period, they were incredibly disappointing in the second. Disappointing might be kind. They defended with the gusto of a beer league team, forsaking structure and will. Not only did the Penguins muster only two shots in the first 13 minutes of the period, including one power play, they gave up two ugly goals.

“They just played better hockey than us. Plain and simple,” Lars Eller said, still rubbing his chin and shaking his head in disappointment.

The Penguins’ defensive structure collapsed in the second period. They crumbled, and instead of covering someone, they covered no one.

The second period was a small-scale disaster that mushroomed into a large one. They achieved no shots on the power play and not even a shot when they had a two-on-none. Their lackluster performance spotted Dallas a pair of goals and applied very little, if any, pressure.

The Penguins just didn’t turn the game.

“I like the way the team started, and we came out with good energy. (We scored) the first goal,” said Sullivan. “I thought there were instances where we had to defend harder at our net front. I thought we had offensive opportunities on the other end of the rink, where we simply had to execute and finish. We had three-on-one. We have two-on-none. We had a number of different looks where we had opportunities. We’re not executing on that. If we do it, we give ourselves a chance. I also think it just changes the mindset.”

Penguins Analysis

Dallas was not shy. Later in the first period and through the second, they pressured the Penguins’ breakouts, pressured them in the neutral zone, and ultimately, their pressure negated any Penguins’ offensive zone time.

Film study might prove otherwise, but in the second period, the Penguins failed to have one shift spent entirely in the offensive zone. Dallas was able to plant their feet inside the blue line, and the defensemen were well inside the red line. It must have looked like an uncleared jungle path to the Penguins, who failed to break through the Dallas defensive wall.

In a sense, Dallas outclassed the Penguins, but it was more than that. The Penguins have a pair of premier defensemen who are supposed to be able to skate the puck up the ice. The Penguins are supposed to have forwards who can handle the puck in a phone booth, often around and through defense.

But the Penguins never broke it, never established zone time, and were never in the period. They hung on for dear life, scrambling to cover extra men as Dallas was able to bring all five into the zone without fear.

It’s not that the Penguins were flat; it’s that they were feckless. The rage that should have accompanied the dying of the light was instead a sad version of what should have been.

Penguins Report Card

Team: F

They were in the game. It was 1-1. And they flatlined.

If I were a psychologist, I’d say deep down, the Penguins don’t want it. Somewhere in the collective psyche is a brick wall as they continue to give away opportunities without nearly as much fight as you’d expect.

Dallas attacked. The Penguins specifically worked on breakouts under pressure at practice on Thursday. It didn’t help. By the middle of the second, Dallas attacked as a five-man unit that looked like 10.

A fight. A hit. A hard moment to ignite the team. Someone. Anyone. The Penguins just don’t have the fire to push back.

Power Play: F

0-for-2, one shot. Pathetic might be too kind. Lady bugs are more dangerous. Kittens are more fearsome.

Flat-footed, panicked, and slow passing around the perimeter only made the Dallas PK more aggressive.

Now, some performances to like, kind of

Evgeni Malkin: He was part of the second period vanishing act. But when he and his line got on the puck in the offensive zone, they were the best Penguins line. Malkin set up both Michael Bunting and Rickard Rakell for goals within feet of the net. Two goals for one line isn’t a bad night.

Emil Bemstrom: I’m reaching a little bit, but he snapped a wrister off the crossbar and had another scoring chance in the second period. He could be more assertive, but he had some chances.

The last two games tell you how much Jeff Carter adds to the fourth line. Bet you didn’t expect that.

Jack St. Ivany: First, he was largely responsible for putting Tristan Jarry and John Ludvig in a bad spot on the third Dallas goal. He stepped forward without help behind him, and Dallas burned him. But, other than that play, he was solid. He kept it simple, cleared the crease, and stayed within himself. Want to bet he won’t make that same mistake for a long time?

“Solid. I thought he was solid,” Sullivan said. “He made some good plays, and he defended hard. He’s got a good stick. I thought I played well.”

Lacking Performances

Erik Karlsson: This was the game they needed their Ferrari to race up the ice. Lead the power play. Karlsson remained parked.

Top Line: It’s not often that we give Penguins captain Sidney Crosby a bad grade, but he didn’t have it on Friday. Not even Drew O’Connor or Bryan Rust were able to break free from their Dallas shadows. Crosby had zero shots. Rust and O’Connor had one each.

Third Line: After a run of good games, the third line had a 26% Corsi. They were on the wrong side all night.

It’s an early game Sunday. One shudders to think what Colorado might do to a lifeless Penguins team.