Penguins Trouble: This Just Isn’t Good Enough
The Pittsburgh Penguins earned what coach Mike Sullivan called a hard-fought point Thursday on the road against the Washington Capitals. The point kept the Penguins within one point of Washington; both teams occupy a wild-card spot, but should nervously be looking at the standings and the hard-charging Buffalo Sabres.
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, the Penguins had only eight high-danger scoring chances Thursday. The number drops to five when totaling the chances by the four Penguins lines. Nor were the Penguins’ goals particularly well-earned. Both were goalie mistakes.
Yet the Penguins possessed the puck. They had momentum at various points in the game but, for a multitude of reasons, could not generate enough scoring chances.
The Penguins played hard, but there should be a realization by management after 65 minutes against a good team: The Penguins’ effort was good, but not good enough. Worse, that has been a recurring theme.
The top two lines yielded six rebound chances, but generated a grand total of one. Part of that statistic is on goalie Casey DeSmith, who wasn’t controlling the puck very well in the first period, but the rest is on the Penguins.
The bottom-six generated two rebound chances and no rush attempts.
That’s not good enough, either.
Washington had a specific strategy for dealing with the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin line, no matter which line and defensive pair was on against Malkin. The Capitals were glued to him and Jason Zucker, stride-for-stride, from the red line to the goal line.
Without the Malkin line generating chances or points, the Penguins’ offensive attack seemed to be mired in the quicksand of the perimeter. Almost no second chances and no rush attempts. They might consider themselves lucky to have scored twice. Stats like that usually translate to a shutout.
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On paper, a six-game points streak sounds more appealing than it is in reality. With loser points in the NHL, a team can tread water but claim points by getting to overtime. The Penguins are on such a streak after three overtime and shootout losses in the last week, including a pair to division rivals (the New Jersey Devils are the other).
The Penguins are losing ground to the better teams in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres are about to race past them, and probably Washington, in the wild-card race.
As of Friday, Buffalo, with Tage Thompson, Rasmus Dahlin, and a core of young, hungry players who are finally getting their NHL sea legs, are probably better than both the Penguins and Capitals, which means one of those two likely will be watching the playoffs.
Buffalo has won five straight, and the Sabres are not beating bottom-feeders. They defeated the stout Winnipeg Jets Thursday.
The Penguins are feasting on sprinkle-covered cupcakes. Their past three wins were against Florida in overtime, Ottawa and Anahein, also in overtime.
Florida is not in a playoff spot and was playing its third game in four nights. The Senators are closer to the Connor Bedard sweepstakes than a playoff spot. And the Penguins squandered a third-period lead before beating the lowly Ducks.
The Penguins’ last win over a team in currently in a playoff spot was Dec. 20 win against the New York Rangers. That’s five weeks ago.
Including the New York Islanders and Florida, who are behind the Penguins in the standings, the Penguins are 1-6-4 in their last 11 games against quality opponents. Their only win during that span was Tuesday over Florida in a terribly played 7-6 game.
Against the top four teams in the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins are 2-3-4.
Against the top three teams in the Atlantic Division, the Penguins are 2-3-1.
You might say that’s OK, that those are good teams. But that is the point: Those are good teams, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are supposed to be good, too.
Again, that is not good enough.
Jeff Carter is point-less in nine games. He has one or fewer shots in five of those.
Brock McGinn last appeared on the scoresheet on Dec. 22, a span of 15 games.
Teddy Blueger doesn’t have a point in 13 games and is on pace for a full-season career-low 12 points. He has just one goal in 33 games this season and is a minus-5.
Combined, the trio costs over $8 million.
Surprisingly, the Penguins’ recently overhauled fourth line is putting up points and passing the eye test. Drew O’Connor has three points in his last two games and five points in his last 12 (3-2-5), despite single-digit minutes of ice time in seven of those.
Despite many zeroes in November and December, Danton Heinen has five points in his last 12 games, too (3-2-5).
It isn’t a matter of the Penguins’ third line starting in the defensive zone. It’s a matter of not getting to the offensive zone.
Warning signs and red flags are waving like a Texas amusement park. What was a “maybe” GM Ron Hextall should act has become a full-blown “must act now” situation. With every passing week, the Penguins give ground to the top teams and allow the bottom teams to get closer. With every passing week, the words are the same, but the Penguins’ game seems to drift further from its peak.
You can probably finish the line. That, too, is not good enough.