CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa — Goals have been a scarce commodity for the Pittsburgh Penguins. If they were on the stock market, the supply would be well outpaced by demand and the price would rival a share of Google. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been winning hockey games but can they do so with limited offense and can they maintain the hard defensive posture?
The locker room doesn’t seem too concerned. The phrase, “if we keep doing the right things,” echoes from locker stall to locker stall.
Since Malkin’s injury on March 16, the Penguins have scored just 14 goals in seven games (including the game in which Malkin was injured).
Indeed the Penguins have only a little reason to worry about the big picture just yet. Before the Saturday night games, their magic number is down to just four points. Any combination of Montreal losing points or the Penguins gaining points will put them in the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season. In fact, that could happen as soon as tomorrow if Montreal loses in regulation Saturday and the Penguins earn two points Sunday.
“I think that good defense always leads to offensive chances. It comes down to just carrying the puck,” Sidney Crosby said. “I think you look at your scoring chances and if you’re generating a lot of those, I think you trust a lot of those will go in.”
At even strength, the Penguins were outchanced by Nashville on Friday night, 23-14. However, the Penguins ripped 43 shots at Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, including 15 on the power play. The scoring chances don’t include the power play work. The Penguins had chances but could not score until the 58th minute of the game.
The puck domination but lack of offense has been an issue.
“Obviously, with different guys out and especially (Malkin), he’s got a lot. (Kris Letang), the same thing. I think if we focus on playing well defensively I think we have enough depth that the puck will go in,” Crosby said. “If you keep doing the right things, keep getting chances, I like to think it will.”
Malkin and Letang have combined for 124 points this season (Malkin has 71 and Letang has 53), so removing them from the Penguins lineup will undoubtedly diminish offense but they’ve gone downright cold on the scoreboard.
There aren’t many times per season the Penguins will register more than 40 shots before they have a goal to show for their effort but that’s been the new reality for the Penguins. As the game tightens up and playoff hockey emerges, the transition and rush aren’t as prevalent. The team will have to manufacture goals with old-fashioned gritty play and puck control.
“We haven’t scored a ton of goals game in and game out,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “I just think that’s the nature of how the game is being played at this time of year. For me it’s about playing the game the right way, taking what our opponents give us.”
The Penguins have become a unique collage of different ways to create offense. The third line centered by Nick Bjugstad with Patric Hornqvist and Dominik Simon has been a monster below the dots and on the forecheck. They’ve been merciless on opponents but have few goals to show for their effort and Patric Hornqvist has not scored an even strength goal since Jan. 5.
As it was Friday night, the Penguins line again ominated more scoring
The Penguins second line is a mishmash of bad habits and hope, with our without Evgeni Malkin. With Teddy Blueger in the middle, the Penguins have found a speedy forecheck but have not received much 5v5 offense from Phil Kessel who hasn’t marked an even strength goal since Jan. 30. Kessel’s turnovers have stifled offensive pressure, too.
The Penguins top line with Sidney Crosby ad Jake Guentzel have been a model of consistency, creativity and flexibility. When the rush is available, the line can outskate any line. When the game is greasy, the line can attack with the forecheck and play below the dots.
You would expect anything less from Sidney Crosby?
But it’s about adding a few more goals to be comfortable in tight, playoff-style games. The Penguins haven’t yet achieved that, though they are certainly “playing the right way.”