The regular season matters. Forming habits, chemistry, and cohesiveness are the building blocks to winning the Stanley Cup. Sometimes a trade deadline acquisition is the rug which really ties the room together, like Bill Guerin in 2009. However, most often a team carries its regular season into the postseason. There aren’t magic switches or mental resets which occur in April. And so, the 2018-19 Pittsburgh Penguins beginning this promising season in exactly the same manner which ended their disappointing season last May is a cause of deeper concern than merely giving up 11 goals in two games.
This isn’t the only time this season the Penguins will give up a bushel full of goals in a two-game span. But something was amiss last season and its continued straight into this season. Talented players, great coaches, and a winning atmosphere are propelling the Penguins into a destructive style of play. Like a season ago, the Penguins defensemen are pinching at bad moments and missing defensive assignments. Forwards are not covering for their defensemen, but instead yielding offensive-chances-against to forage for their own opportunity.
“We’re a team right now that just wants to score instead of just playing the game the right way,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. He said the same thing, in nearly the same words late last season, too. And Sullivan again said same in the playoffs.
The continuation aspect is the reason the “it’s just two games into the season,” dismissal doesn’t apply.
Our Twitter and Facebook responses are already piling on lesser players but it’s a red herring to blame a singular player (especially those which have lesser roles) when the team flatlined in a 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, who are not expected to challenge for a playoff spot. The important word is “team.”
Last season as a team, the Penguins yielded odd-man chances by the dozen. Defensive coverage was optional and turnovers were aplenty. That was to have ended last season but it appears old habits die hard.
If there’s an innocent player this season, he wears No. 87. There are certainly no innocent lines. Or pairings. Your favorite player has made as many mistakes as the other players and the players you don’t like.
The continuation of loose play is a mindset. The Penguins mindset has not focused on winning details and executed them well for an extended period of time, in a long time. Pop psychology leads this writer to wonder if the extraordinary level of offensive talent is currently too tempting. Little things seem even smaller or more insignificant when six, seven or even eight players can light the lamp.
Playing with so much talent but being asked to play a gritty, controlled, detailed game may seem like being asked to drive a Ferrari only 55mph on the highway. But that’s the only way to win–to execute in all phases, to aggressively compete for the puck in all three zones, and most importantly, suppress the opponent’s offensive chances.
The NHL is about suppression. In 2016, the Penguins suppressed their opponents by hogging the puck and doggedly pursuing it, thus taking away space. But the Penguins over the past 12 months have opted to trade chances, and not always in proportion. When opponents play structured and fast against the Penguins speed and openness, the opponents have the advantage.
It seems unfair to blame goaltender Matt Murray when uncovered players are deflecting shots near the crease or when players are breaking into the zone behind the Penguins defense. The Penguins have yielded 11 goals in two games and looked too similar to the mistake-prone team which fell to the Washington Capitals in just six games.
Fortunately, it is just two games into the season. The Penguins have plenty of time to adjust to their super-talented status and maximize their abilities with structured play. It may take some time and in the meantime, the hockey may be glorious to watch circa the 1980’s. However, for the Penguins to drink from the Stanley Cup again, they will have to own their responsibilities.
They certainly have all of the tools, leaders, and coaches to do so. And they have plenty of time. They simply need to recognize their coach is correct. They are playing sloppy hockey. Again.