It’s coach Mike Sullivan’s fault. It’s the DNA of the team that won’t play defense. It’s Kris Letang’s fault. And it’s Jeff Carter’s fault. The external noise surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins’ opening night loss to the Chicago Blackhawks was replete with dismay and disbelief. Perhaps that should be expected for a team that coughed up 22 leads last season and began a new season in an old way.
According to MoreHockeyStats.com, the Penguins were the second-worst team in the NHL last season when they got a lead. Only the San Jose Sharks were worse, and only Vancouver choked away more multi-goal leads. For the record, the Penguins gave away eight two or more-goal leads, and Vancouver graciously gifted 10 wins to opponents when leading by a couple or more.
In the first few days of the new season, only two teams have fumbled away multi-goal leads: The Montreal Canadiens and …. the Penguins.
And while the blame game is easy, making sense of the result, which should only happen two or three times per season, is far more complex.
Eight blown multi-goal leads — that was last season. Thursday, Sullivan drew a stern line between the past and present.
“You guys continue to want to talk about last season. I really have no interest in talking about last season. This is a brand-new team. This is a whole new challenge. This is a whole group,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to try to we’re going to try to play the game a certain way that gives us the best chance to win. And I think to answer your question specifically, the best way to hang on to leads is to make sure you don’t beat yourself.”
Sullivan noted his team taking a careless stick penalty in the offensive zone just three minutes into the third period and the team’s poor puck management.
Complicating the external view is the dichotomy of the Penguins roster. They are both a vastly different team, as 10 of the 22 rostered players are new, and the same because the core leadership group and veterans remain.
The Pittsburgh Penguins Defensive System?
The growing belief among the participating Penguins fans via social media, comments, and talk shows is that Sullivan is stubborn. He won’t change the style of play, and thus, the Penguins are sitting ducks when they get a lead.
However, every human in the Penguins locker room and coaches’ room will say that changing the style of play is antiquated and not playing with the puck is a surefire way to get on your heels and give up leads.
“I don’t think we can let it creep in … We had problems with (that) last year, and obviously, the first night, we couldn’t capitalize on the lead that we had,” said Marcus Pettersson. “So I just think that we’ve got to play smarter; not sit back, but at the same time, play smart. We want to play our game. We don’t want to sit back and let them come out a million miles an hour all the time, either. But we don’t want to lose guys in the O-zone.
“So I think finding a balance there will be crucial for us.”
But why aren’t other teams gagging up leads like a toddler trying broccoli?
Was it Sullivan’s fault Ryan Donato beat Pettersson at the front of the net for the first goal?
Was it Sullivan’s fault that Drew O’Connor left Cole Guttman alone in the slot while gliding toward the net only a few feet away?
Was it Sullivan’s fault that no one tracked Jason Dickinson, a low-scoring fourth-line center, into the offensive zone on the game-winner?
The Penguins’ loss to Chicago was wide open. Like the final preseason game, a 7-4 win over Buffalo, the boys were figuring it out in a not-so-conservative manner. An equally salient question might be, how could the uber-talented Penguins lose a track meet to a lottery team?
Crosby didn’t note a needed change in mindset as much as their failure to get the next goal, whether to lead 3-0 or 3-1.
“You’ve just got to learn from it. I mean, it’s different things. It’s not always the same thing when you look at those (lost leads). If you’re looking at the last game, it’s getting that next goal to go up two and limiting mistakes,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “I mean, obviously, the fewer mistakes you make, the less chance of them getting Grade A’s and tying the game. So if teams are going to come back, we’ve got to make them earn it. I think that’s the way we like to look at it.”
In a rush to find a scapegoat or three, the external noise had picked its usual culprits, but perhaps there is one that is not being discussed that withstands scrutiny: mindset.
Why were so many fans and even the Canadian media already calling out the new team? Because even if there are a lot of new nameplates, the jerseys with the flightless bird have struggled to hold multi-goal leads.
“We have to get over the hump,” Bryan Rust conceded. “We need two or three times to play well (in that situation).”
The Penguins were a great team with the lead in 2021-22; only two teams were better, yet they were terrible in 2022-23. One mistake begot three. The cumulative effect of one loss became more losses, or at least uneasy victories.
“They’re going to push. You know, we hit the crossbar, they come back and end up scoring. So it’s a pretty fine line,” Crosby concluded.
It’s equally fair to ask why players with significant NHL experience, boxes of trophies, and Stanley Cup rings stray so far from winning hockey or why those players can’t stem the momentum by even the NHL’s weakest teams.
Is it a poor system? Hardly. The leads were also plentiful. While the 2023-24 Penguins don’t yet officially have a problem, a team that missed the playoffs by one win last season and figures to again be in a dogfight for a playoff spot in April has to carefully watch missed opportunities, even in October.
One thing that cannot connect the string of last season’s failures to the Tuesday collapse is the roster. A nearly 50% turnover should provide a clean slate. Rust, Pettersson, and Sullivan duly noted the fresh season.
Yet on Tuesday, Letang also noted the breakdowns, which eerily mirrored the past.
“I think it was a tight game the entire time because we let it happen like that. You saw (Chicago’s winning) goal is a fortunate bounce. It goes off our skate right to (Dickinson) like hanging out in the slot. Sometimes it looks like bad luck. But we always say that you create your own luck in hockey, so yeah, if we would have a step on the guys and play simply and just play a north-south game, I think we wouldn’t be in that situation as much as anything else.”
Sullivan left little doubt the question connecting last season to this was not his favorite. It shouldn’t be. The Pittsburgh Penguins 2023-24 are trying to move forward. Changes throughout the lineup have inserted vitality and optimism where disgust or disappointment previously resided.
Despite the pushback, don’t mistake that for ignoring the problem. Sullivan said the team went through video sessions Thursday morning before practice.
You can be sure the blown coverages and lethargic backchecking had starring roles.
“We have to become a team that doesn’t beat itself,” Sullivan said.
One game vs. fan fears of deja vu all over again. It’s an honest question, and the immediate past is still intricately part of the new Penguins story, even if the questions are somewhat annoying to those on the inside.
Of course, a few wins in that situation would fix any problems and erase most memories. However, it will take some time to get those wins because Friday is only the second game of the season.