Evgeni Malkin sat in his locker stall after talking to the media, his head in his hands. Malkin barely spoke above a whisper for nearly three minutes, shaking his head as he stared at the floor. Malkin blamed himself for a mistake at the end of the game, which allowed the expiration of a 5v3 power play to become the game-winning breakaway goal by Anaheim Ducks forward Mason McTavish with 13 seconds remaining.
From approaching victory to squandering a two-man advantage in the final minutes on a bewildering mistake. The Penguins lost 4-3 to the Ducks at PPG Paints Arena. The loss was a Tyson Fury gut-punch that seemed to buckle the team from the top down.
Malkin bordered on disconsolate.
“They were blocking shots (on the final power play). They fought — they knew if we scored, they probably lost,” Malkin said. “Their goalie played very well, but it’s not how they play, it’s how we play. It was a huge mistake for us on the power play, and they scored. It’s hard to understand right now. We should play better. We scored and gave them two breakaways. We know it’s coming. I know it’s coming. Maybe I should play a little bit back and play safety, but we were trying to score.”
Malkin frequently paused, shaking his head.
The Penguins superstar sat motionless with no one to talk to for a few minutes. The Penguins’ locker room quickly cleared out.
An equally shell-shocked Radim Zohorna returned to the room to face the media, as well. Zohorna had one of the best games of his career, scored a goal, and drove an offensive chance on the third line. The Penguins’ 6-foot-6 forward did all he could, and he wore the loss as hard as anyone.
The loss knocked the wind out of him. His goal was little consolation in yet another loss. Zohorna’s brief conversation is also available on the National Hockey Now YouTube page.
“I don’t have words right now. It was a tough game, tough to lose right now,” Zohorna said with a sad sigh.
Coach Mike Sullivan is also in uncharted territory. He believes his team is playing well enough to win several of the recent games, but has instead lost two in a row and five of six. Their record is an unacceptable 3-6.
Worse, even Sullivan had to concede that the team was discouraged. The coach alternated from disheartened to somewhat combative, then cycled back to bewildered.
“I think when you look at the way the games are being played here, the last handful of games, there’s been significant amounts of time that we’ve been the better team. Right now, we’re finding ways to lose,” said Sullivan. “We’ve got to find ways to win. So, do we need to make some changes? We might have to. And we’ll look at that. But this one is discouraging because, once again, I thought for most of the night we carried the play.”
These are strange times for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even when things go according to plan, the result is a bitter and stinging defeat. Answers are not readily available, at least so soon after a loss that seemed to trash the Penguins’ spirit.
There was no fight-back in Malkin’s words. Sullivan’s fight-back was exasperation, not anger. Just nine games into the season, reality is smacking the Penguins like a brisk autumn wind. For all of the best-laid plans of a headline-grabbing offseason, they’ve suffered soul-crushing defeats to the up-and-coming Detroit Red Wings, the equally rising Ottawa Senators, and the rebuilding Anaheim Ducks.
They’ve risen to the challenge for periods or moments, but mistakes have submarined them.
Tristan Jarry has not saved them from themselves and sometimes has been one of the problems plaguing what is now a losing team.
“Frustrating. We need some points. Obviously, I need to be better,” said Jarry. “And I think that’s the bottom line. I think the guys in here needed a save at the end or one of the other ones. I think it’s just a step for me to be better.”
The veteran team with Stanley Cup aspirations has been reduced to an old team trying in vain to win a game. Their four-game homestand was to be a launching pad. Instead, it was a sledgehammer.
“I think Tristan’s been like our whole team. You know, we’ve had moments when we’ve been really good, and we’ve had moments when we haven’t been,” Sullivan said.
Answers seem elusive. The lineup has remained the same up front, with the exception of Zohorna’s inclusion in Game 5. This was not what anyone on the inside thought would happen. It would be mystifying if it were not so obviously painful, too.
No, it seems these Penguins are confronting larger issues than a mere losing streak, and the voices are getting louder with each loss. With a core whose members are in their mid- to late-30s, they are confronting the doubts that many have been casting upon them and they have disproven for years. They have denied Father Time for several years and are still playing at a high level, but nonetheless, the scoreboard is punishing them. Sullivan has extended his shelf life to more than double the average NHL coach, but even his grasp on the team seems to be in question.
The Penguins may wake up Tuesday with a fire and anger. They may save it for the teams out west, including the San Jose Sharks, who have lost nine in a row, and make someone pay. They might.
But on the day before Halloween, they stared into the specter of losing, and they didn’t know how to stop it.
“It’s a tough loss for sure. But again, we can’t stop. I mean, it’s just beginning the season, and we need to focus on the next game,” Malkin said softly. “And again, I love this group. I believe in what we’re doing — just support each other and play hard. I mean, we have no choice. The game is not easy. Every team fights. But we need to fight back.”
What those changes might be could emerge on Tuesday. Many of the players and the coach will have a night to think about it, as sleep eludes them like the goals they’ve needed but haven’t gotten.