“It’s tough. It’s tough to break everything down in one little sound bite for you, as far as …” Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said, trailing off. “I don’t think it’s urgency. I think we know the situation. We know that we need to get points. And I don’t think it’s that.”
The Penguins won four of their first five games and scored six goals in each of the wins. Success came early and quickly this season. Since then, it has been a much different song. On more nights than not, the Penguins have been unable to finish teams or outplay them.
In late October, Jeff Carter said this to PHN after they lost to the Calgary Flames:
“Sometimes when (scoring a lot of goals) happens early (in the season), you kind of get in that mindset that everything will continue to go that way. And I think part of that … maybe we got caught in that a little bit here.”
Since those four wins to begin the season, they’ve won twice in 11 games.
Player after player has said they need to play simply. Kris Letang used that term as he and PHN sat in empty locker stalls after the game. To his credit, he was candid and forthcoming about his perspective on the team’s struggles.
But sometimes, things are harder to see from the inside looking out. Pick the term you prefer. Urgency. Intensity. The Pittsburgh Penguins visibly lack them for sustained periods. The team has not followed through on the requirements to win games. When pushed, they have not yet pushed back.
Sure, they play well for 15 minutes in sporadic intervals, and their talent, superior to that of most teams, allows those 15 minutes to sometimes keep them in games or surge for a win.
“We don’t look to analyze game-by-game,” Letang said. “We look at it period-by-period. It’s not a bad one, a good one. It’s the fact that we don’t play 60 minutes. And just those 10 minutes, they cost us … So if you give them two-on-ones, three-on-twos, four-on-twos, eventually it’s going to break.”
The breakdowns were bewildering on Tuesday in the Penguins’ 5-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. There were a few uncovered players who were near or raced to the Penguins’ net, and they scored uncontested goals.
Crosby’s line was on the ice for every Toronto goal.
The top defense pairing was on the ice for three of four even-strength goals.
“I think there we have moments in the game where we’re playing really well. We gain momentum, we generate scoring chances, and we’re playing on our toes,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “You know, we’re dictating the terms out there, and then there are lapses in the game. When we break down, the breakdowns are egregious, and they’re hard to recover from.”
They took two third-period leads against the Montreal Canadiens Saturday, then gave each away within a minute. They scored and relaxed, but their opponent didn’t acquiesce.
Statistically, the Penguins are one of the league’s worst third-period teams. They have scored 18 third-period goals, which ranks 14th in the NHL, but have allowed 24.
That ranks 30th.
“I’d say the last 10 games, we were not winning. And you’re trying to get back into games, and you’re forcing it, and it opens the game up,” Letang told PHN. “That’s one way to allow more goals. The fact that we’ve not been in control of games lately, the games open up in the third. But overall, I think it’s just the fact that the game is 60 minutes. You cannot take five minutes or 10 minutes off over that 60 minutes.”
Only the hapless Anaheim Ducks and chaos-ridden Vancouver Canucks are worse. Those teams also chase the game in the third, but the unresolved question for the Penguins is: How are they getting to that point so easily?
The NHL season is no longer “early.” Thanksgiving is one week away, and stats show that teams out of the playoff seedings on that day have only a 25% chance of reaching the postseason.
It’s not as if injuries have racked the Penguins. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been healthy. So, too, has Kris Letang. Except for a few brief illnesses, only Teddy Blueger has accrued the man-games lost stat.
No, it’s not injuries. And it’s not a problem jelling. This is primarily the same team as last season and the seasons before.
This team has a tired feel. Lethargic. Teams that need to win skate a step quicker. They fight for pucks in the first, second and third periods. Teams that feel a hunger don’t consistently disappear for long stretches. The Penguins lack urgency, even if everyone on the inside, from Crosby to Letang, and Sullivan, disagrees.
A team with urgency doesn’t suffer such regular and catastrophic breakdowns. It doesn’t repeatedly take 10 minutes off.
Perhaps 16 straight playoff appearances will make it tougher, to the point of incredulity, to worry about missing them. Perhaps the Hall of Fame talent in the locker room provides a never-ending fountain of optimism that they just need to play 60 minutes.
We’ve seen how good the team can be, but why they are not remains a mystery.
There could be a lot of reasons, and perhaps they do transcend a soundbite. The Pittsburgh Penguins are being challenged by opponents and the situation. They were challenged by a pair of bad losses in Edmonton and Calgary, only to follow them up with losses against non-playoff teams in Seattle and Vancouver.
They beat the injury-riddled and equally struggling Washington Capitals, then clamped down on the Toronto Maple Leafs, only to follow those wins up with another stinker in Montreal and at home against Toronto.
The Penguins are the more talented team, compared to most of those opponents.
Yet those opponents have shown more desire and intensity.
As the losses pile up, there are probably many reasons, some known and some unknown. But the only thing for sure is that the Penguins are lacking.