It has become painfully apparent through actions and even words that the Pittsburgh Penguins’ confidence is gone. Hall of Famers, rock-ribbed veterans, and the rest, everyone wants to score but exhibits a breathless frustration when chances hit the goalie, shots hit the glass, or defensemen otherwise get in the way.
The power play struggles have engulfed the team. The already high number of mistakes has been compounded with players trying too hard. Several of Erik Karlsson’s poorly timed pinches Friday night were a prime example. The worsening results have become a self-fulfilling destiny.
Gripping their sticks too tight is the cliche. The reality is the team feels more comfortable at even-strength because the power play has become a chamber of horrors and absurdities that would make Rob Zombie blush. On the road trip, Evgeni Malkin said they are nervous. Erik Karlsson said the team is more comfortable at even strength until they can figure this out.
Karlsson has been dropped into a nightmare. He escaped the San Jose Sharks because he wanted a shot at a Stanley Cup.
Since the Penguins capped a historically bad week for the Sharks in early November by being the second consecutive team to hang double digits on the scoreboard, the Sharks are 8-7-1. The Penguins are 7-7-2.
Penguins fans groaned when maligned former Penguins winger Mikael Granlund scored the OT winner on Wednesday night just as the Penguins were giving their lunch money to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It’s been that kind of season.
2. Alex Nylander vs. Valtteri Puustinen
After poo-poo’ing Nylander’s NHL potential, I was surprised and impressed last March. Nylander backchecked like a demon but sacrificed much of his game to do so. It was unsustainable.
Nylander may have exhausted his last good chance–he bordered between invisible and ineffective. Nylander exhibited some bad habits, and once he stopped backchecking to that degree, his NHL game just didn’t make any impact. I don’t know if he gets another chance without forcing the issue.
Puustinen is younger, smaller, and rather than a top-10 draft pick, was a seventh-rounder. The two could not have more different pedigrees. I liked what I saw from Puustinen Friday. He was chippy. He had real puck poise. There was a sequence in the first period in which the Evgeni Malkin line cycled behind the net. The easy thing was to quickly play the puck and cycle or immediately tap it toward the net. Puustinen had the confidence to hold the puck, waiting for his play to develop, which forced the Florida defenders toward him.
His power-play one-timer is unique as he slides his bottom hand up to lengthen the shaft and increase the whip of the stick.
However, I also felt on a couple of occasions, he needed to collapse toward the slot to take care of a shooter in the slot.
Like Nylander last March, you’re never sure how much of his game is adrenaline and how much is sustainable. Unlike Nylander, who seemed to reinvent his game, Puustinen seemed to deliver all of the things the Penguins have touted.
He was fearless. Perhaps PP2 could have a Swede slipping pucks to a Finn with an American near the net.
3. The 4 Penguins Who Can Fix
There are three players and a coach who can fix this. Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, and coach Mike Sullivan.
It seemed there was a brief closed-door meeting after the Tampa Bay loss, though no one specifically mentioned it.
The four of them seem to be on the same page. I do not sense rancor or a lack of buy-in, and that’s why the four of them are the ones to grab the situation. Crosby is having one of his best seasons ever, and Letang has adopted his new role very well. We’ve written about that too many times already.
The power play fix rests with those four, and Sullivan probably has to risk bruising Karlsson’s ego and move him off the top unit. I may also suggest if Sullivan has not yet done so, he needs to become the power play coordinator, at least in the short term. Sullivan has done that before in times of great mediocrity, and this surely rises above all struggles before it.
This Penguins power play is sabotaging the team by creating undue pressure, nerves, and … more pressure.
There is a lack of options for the top unit while Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell are injured. Reilly Smith, Vinnie Hinostroza, and Drew O’Connor are probably the only choices to fill the fifth spot.
I liked Hinostroza’s zip on the power play this week. He and O’Connor both present good puck retrieval, though O’Connor seems to be playing it too quickly in his ascension to the top six. He’s playing too fast and not allowing the game to come to him.
But that doesn’t matter as much as the first three.
No one has more loyalty or love for the sweater than the three core players, and I suspect the coach is on the same side, too. None of the new changes to the power play have worked, so it’s time to go old school. Go get Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy, Blue Lou, and Mr. Fabulous to put the band back together. Let Crosby, Malkin, and Letang put the team on their back, just as they’ve done so many times before.
Celebrate it, too. Spin the mindset positive. Karlsson already agrees that the core three have a special chemistry that he’ll never have with them. I think 0-for-37 is enough reason to give Karlsson a break from the top unit.
The Penguins season is getting away from them. It’s all hands on deck, leave the egos at the door.