The Pittsburgh Penguins season is unexpectedly slip sliding away. Despite an abundance of scoring chances, even on bad nights, and mathematics that says the Penguins should be among the best teams in the NHL, the only real math that matters is the points added in the NHL standings.
And the Penguins aren’t adding nearly enough.
After squandering a two-goal third period lead Friday against the Buffalo Sabres, the Penguins are much closer to the bottom of the Eastern Conference than the second wild card. They lead the cellar-dwelling Columbus Blue Jackets by two points and trail the second-wild-card Detroit Red Wings by five points.
Predicted playoff contenders, the New York Islanders and Buffalo, are between the Penguins and Detroit. So, too, are the rebuilding Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers.
But it doesn’t really matter who is between the Penguins and the Wild Card if they don’t start winning.
The Penguins were in a foul mood Friday night, and they should have been. They were on the wrong end of a penalty call that was phantom. They gifted their opponent a win by losing their focus. Some of their best players were the culprits, but only a couple of their secondary players made an impact.
Be careful writing off the Penguins. Every time we think the Penguins are ready for the funeral pyre, they fight back.
But there was something different Friday night, or rather, there was something oddly familiar from a long time ago. The Penguins’ performance was a throwback to the team that coach Mike Sullivan demanded: “Just play.”
The petulant Penguins he inherited in 2015 were routinely sidetracked by complaining to officials, seeking physical retribution, and breaking their scheme to achieve personal satisfaction.
The 3-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center felt like a time capsule.
The Penguins defenseman is on IR, not LTIR, which means the Penguins don’t get any salary cap relief. His remains a surprising case.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now spoke with Joseph one day before he was placed on IR on Nov. 18, retroactive to Nov. 4. He was excitedly trying to get back in the lineup and unflinchingly finding the positives about his string of scratches.
It went from that to this:
“What I will tell you is that with respect to P.O, we had intentions of putting P.O in the lineup tonight (Nov. 18). He’s been dealing with a lower-body injury here for a little bit and doesn’t feel comfortable at this point going into the lineup and being effective,” said Sullivan. “And so I know there’s been a little bit of an assumption that, most recently, he’s been a healthy scratch. It hasn’t really been the case. He’s been dealing with this here for a little bit, and where we’re trying to help him get over the hump.”
That Sullivan specifically cited Joseph’s feelings on the matter was a departure from the norm.
Joseph has technically missed nine games and 20 days. If he can’t play Saturday vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs or Tuesday in Nashville, he would be eligible for LTIR.
Crosby & Penguins’ Direction
Remember the fears that the Penguins’ core would become the albatross?
Sidney Crosby, 36, has 13 goals in 19 games, which is a 56-goal pace. It would be foolish to rest any of the Penguins’ struggles at Crosby’s doorstep (though some of our Facebook commenters did anyway).
Kris Letang has been a defensive stalwart. Friday’s sidetrack notwithstanding.
Jake Guentzel has been his usual high-producing self. Bryan Rust has been rejuvenated after what he considered to be a difficult 2022-23 season.
Where is everyone else?
Reilly Smith doesn’t have a point in six games. Evgeni Malkin has two points (1-1-2) in that time.
As noted in the PHN Penguins report card, the fourth line played reduced minutes Friday despite a Penguins lead and a chippy game. That’s damning.
Matt Nieto earned an assist Friday with a good forecheck. It was just his third point in 19 games. Noel Acciari has two points (1-1-2). Jeff Carter is scoreless in 13 games. Drew O’Connor has four points (1-3-4) in 19 games.
Radim Zohorna has six points (3-3-6) in 15 games. Watch Zohorna and when he shows up. He seems to spark activity, but he could be more consistent. He has the tools and talent to be a pretty good NHL player.
Zohorna might be the next Dominik Simon, a good player who doesn’t have great statistics but seems to generate offense anyway. Though the 6-foot-6 Zohorna has a few more advantages and seems to be getting comfortable in the NHL.
He has more to give, too, but he may need the confidence to assert himself. Getting shuffled around the league and levels last year was a disaster for him, and I think it makes him cautious. Some players build some hate in that situation, and some take a confidence hit. Zohorna is the latter. If he ever figures out how good he is and what he can do with his size advantage, look out.
Vinnie Hinostroza has been a good addition, too. He has three points in eight games and was one of the Penguins’ better forwards Friday. His puck pursuit and tenacity stand out. He creates a little chaos with his speed.
But there remains a lot of opportunity or necessity for the remainder of the Penguins lineup after Sidney Crosby to contribute. If you’re looking for culprits for a sub-.500 records, start there.