OTTAWA — The Pittsburgh Penguins looked very much like kids waiting for the final bell before Christmas break. They were antsy and not entirely focused on the task at hand. The power play was brutal, and they were fortunate to trail only 4-2 in the third period.
However, in a condensed microcosm of the Penguins’ season, they were terrible and great Saturday in a 5-4 OT loss to the Ottawa Senators Saturday at the Canadian Tire Centre.
They continue to fight themselves as much as any opponent.
Get the Penguins game recap here.
After mustering just 11 mostly disinterested shots in the first 40 minutes, they peppered Ottawa goalie Anton Forsberg with 23 in the third period. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, they had 13 scoring chances in the third period and eight high-danger chances.
They were exceptional in the third. But there’s no reason they have to make a putrid effort to get to their best.
Sidney Crosby, as he’s been all season, was the Penguins’ best player. He was on the ice for the most scoring chances and shot attempts (among forwards). His linemate Rickard Rakell not only scored his first goal of the season but also had the most scoring chances on the team (6), largely due to Crosby.
However, the team was also inexplicably bad from the opening puck drop.
In the first 90 seconds, the Penguins defensemen were in the giving spirit. Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang committed turnovers in the defensive zone on successive shifts, and the Penguins began the game on their heels.
“The first 40 minutes was below the level we expect (from) ourselves. I don’t think we were committed to playing the right way without the puck. We were kind of slow (and) watching,” said Lars Eller. “And it was mostly the game without the puck. When we don’t play well, and we’re not committing to close gaps and defend properly, then we’re not going to have the juice to attack … it just wasn’t good enough.”
Let’s not undersell the Penguins’ two-period faceplant. Coach Mike Sullivan indirectly hinted that too many penalties were called–or at least that both teams were careless. In the first 40 minutes, the teams amassed 17 minutes of penalties. There wasn’t any even strength flow.
“We raised our level of urgency, and we raised our level of execution (in the third),” said Sullivan. “In the first 40 minutes, it was special teams. How many even strange shifts in a row were there before there was a power player or penalty kill on either side? There was no flow for the first 40 minutes. I thought we competed hard in the third.”
If the referees asked the Penguins before the game if they wanted nearly 10 minutes of power play time in the first 40 minutes, the Penguins surely would have said yes. The power play was the Grinch, but that’s entirely on them.
Yet those opportunities yielded just three power-play shots in 9:34 through 40 minutes. In the third, the power play came alive with a few tweaks. Sullivan put Letang on the top unit, moving Karlsson to the second. The Penguins fired four shots on Ottawa goalie Anton Forsberg, including a few very good chances.
But no dice.
“They just weren’t in sync. We didn’t execute, didn’t make great decisions,” said Sullivan. “We thought we were making traction there. The power play has scored a lot of goals for us as of late. Tonight, we just weren’t sharp.”
The Penguins’ room seemed to be buoyed, albeit slightly, by the third period domination in which they outshot Ottawa 23-1.
“I thought we battled hard in the third period, and we said we wanted to throw more pucks to the net, and we certainly did,” said Rakell. “And we certainly had some good looks.”
The Penguins ripped 13 scoring chances in the third period alone, including eight high-danger chances.
Goalie Alex Nedeljkovic stopped 21 of 25 shots in regulation. He was fine in his third straight start, neither great nor bad.
The team can take solace from the comeback and the point for overtime.
The coach can point to a choppy game without flow that kept them from finding a rhythm.
I will point to entirely different factors. The Penguins controlled their fate Saturday but did nothing with it. The team continues to show a remarkable lack of self-awareness. When times are tough, invariably, the answer is to simplify. Get greasy. Get gritty. Throw pucks to the net and try to outwork the other guy.
The Pittsburgh Penguins show no signs of learning those lessons without strong resistance.
They had just 11 shots by the end of the second period. They failed to shoot on one of the worst statistical goalies in the league. Truly baffling.
Tactically, interim Ottawa coach Jacques Martin knew what to do in order to dishevel the Penguins. Ottawa created layers of traffic in the neutral zone and took away outlet options. The Penguins too often tried up passes through Ottawa defenders.
No bueno. The middle of the ice was clogged, at least until the Penguins began moving their feet and pressuring the defenders in the third period. Then everything opened up.
The Penguins are a better team, but it seems there remains an expectation that things will work as they always have.
That expectation is a boat anchor.
How do you issue grades for a student who failed every test and then aced the final? Insert your own letter grades.
Team Grade: C
A great third doesn’t erase two brutal periods. The Penguins could have–and should have–knocked out Ottawa early.
Power Play: F
The power play was one-for-seven. Eller ripped a well-placed shot in the first period. However, notice that teams are challenging the Penguins with aggression in the neutral zone and at the blue line. The Penguins are not winning that war, nor are they getting enough clean zone entries to set up and blast away.
Penguins defensemen: D
En masse, the defenders were mistake-prone, made turnovers, and took penalties. The entire blue line was guilty. Nothing worked until the third period.
The Crosby line is the Penguins. The Penguins are the Crosby line. They had 19 shot attempts, 11 scoring chances, and four high-danger chances (according to NaturalStatTrick.com). The Crosby line had as many scoring chances as the other lines combined.
Malkin was on the ice for just two scoring chances at even strength. He also bears some responsibility for the daisy-pushing power plays. It’s not been a good stretch for Malkin, who has just nine points (2-7-9) in his last 15 games. It’s also been 23 games since Malkin scored a power-play goal (stats courtesy of Penguins historian Bob Grove).
Malkin just isn’t impacting the game right now. That’s bad news for a team that is top-heavy.
Zohorna scantly resembled the player who barged into the Penguins lineup after being recalled early in the season. Exemplified by a late first-period shift, Zohorna tangled with an Ottawa player in the defensive zone, not realizing the puck had shifted to his side. He was caught in no-man’s land. He should have been able to win possession easily, but he was still 20 feet away. Ottawa maintained possession and drew a power play moments later.
Zohorna hasn’t scored a point since Nov. 19, a span of 14 games. The Penguins need more from their third line, and it would seem Sullivan is growing impatient. Zohorna played less than nine minutes on Saturday.