A few things have emerged. Perhaps they existed, perhaps they’ve developed, or maybe just been exacerbated as the Pittsburgh Penguins careen towards the playoffs.
Four straight losses before they rallied to beat the Nashville Predators in OT.
The common themes will run through the remainder of the Pittsburgh Penguins season and the playoffs. The Penguins have areas and issues to clean up within their own game. Lately, they tend to lose their assignments in defensive transition, otherwise known as poor trackback. The Penguins also fed the New York Rangers transition game with puck management issues, and at times they seemed intent on proving they were faster than New York instead of grinding away.
“There are little things that we have to improve. (Things that we’ve) learned, and I think they’re all correctable,” Kris Letang said after the Penguins’ loss to the Rangers on Thursday.
Tracking back, losing assignments, and ill-timed turnovers are correctable. Those seem to have popped up in greater numbers lately. Or at least they’re finding the back of the Penguins net more often.
“I feel like the team has played pretty hard. We haven’t got the result, but we just got to continue to stay with it,” Sullivan said on Thursday. “That’s the message that we gave the guys after the game. You know, we’ve got to learn through each experience…”
How Opponents Are Attacking the Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins have talent. That’s not an issue. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ top-six forwards can hang with any team in the league. Rickard Rakell balances the second line and gives the Penguins a genuine 1-2 punch. Evan Rodrigues has shown recent signs of life, including another point and plenty of shots on Saturday. He had a few more good chances on Sunday, which significantly improves the Penguins’ top nine.
So, what’s the problem?
1: Getting Attacked
The Colorado Avalanche, New York, and Nashville did it differently, but the goal was to prevent the Penguins from getting speed out of their own zone.
After the Penguins clearly won the first period and were flying in their rematch against Colorado, the Avalanche pulled their third forward back. Similar to a left-wing lock. It created traffic in the neutral zone and slowed the Penguins down. Turnovers and mistakes followed. Colorado won.
The New York Rangers used their speed to smother the Penguins’ defensemen. New York was a step quicker, and even without Sidney Crosby and John Marino, it should have been a troubling loss for the Penguins.
Update: I forgot to include Nashville, which hugged the Penguins forwards on the breakout. No separation. No gaps. They essentially dared the Penguins blue liners to beat them, and in the process created turnovers and a slog for 30 minutes.
We’ve got a look at the cards in the deck, and we know how the opponents will attack.
The teams attacked in different ways specific to their strengths, but the results were the same. Teams are feasting on the Penguins’ defensemen.
Sullivan appears to be aware, thus flipping Mike Matheson and Brian Dumoulin a few times over the past few weeks. However, the resulting second pair with Dumoulin and Marino often looks like deer in the headlights.
The advanced stats are awful.
Unless Dumoulin reverses course, his rough season might give Sullivan an impossible choice.
The Penguins’ defensemen may be the key to this year’s playoff success…or failure.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer the fastest team in the East. They may not even be the most talented. The New York Rangers might clip them on both. The Carolina Hurricanes are probably more than a touch faster. And the Florida Panthers are more talented than everyone.
There’s been a little stubbornness by the Penguins to recognize they aren’t the team that stormed the NHL to the first back-to-back Stanley Cups in the salary cap era (and still the only team to do it with successive 82-game seasons played with typical offseasons).
The Penguins were too happy to play on the rush against the Rangers, only to realize those one-off chances are road trip gummy bears to Igor Shesterkin. The Penguins have one even-strength goal in four games against the Vezina-favorite. They have plenty of chances in the slot, but Shesterkin read the play and waited.
He’s outstanding if you haven’t noticed.
It doesn’t really matter which forward lines Sullivan deploys, though that will be a hot topic of conversation should the Penguins lose. But hear it now–that’s the low-hanging fruit for debate because there’s no way to disprove or prove any specific theory, such as Rakell with Crosby or Carter with Malkin.
The Penguins have different strengths against the Rangers than they do Carolina and probably others against Florida.
What the Penguins do well, perhaps much better than their Metro Division counterparts, is play hard in the low zone. Call it the “Sidney Crosby” model. Get the puck low and make the “skating” defensemen fight you for the puck. The Penguins forwards play the game very well because they’re fast and used to playing through the hacks and whacks of playoff hockey.
When the Penguins force the opposition’s defensemen to turn their hips and defend to the end wall, the Penguins are successful. Is there anyone better near the net than Crosby? Bryan Rust isn’t so bad, either.
The Penguins also excel in shot retrieval. In other words–get shots on net and ugly it up. We can definitively say the Penguins have not employed that tactic against Shesterkin.
Opponents will force the Penguins to fight through every obstacle coming out of the defensive zone, but once they get across the red line, they can’t keep believing things are the same as they were.
Simple hockey. Maybe some ugly hockey. Indeed, grinding the Rangers and Hurricanes “skating” defensemen will protect the Penguins’ slowing defensemen.
If the Penguins choose to “just play their game,” they could be “just watching on TV” far too soon.