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Sullivan: Penguins’ Latest Meltdown in 6-3 Loss ‘Stings’

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Buffalo Crosby Clague

BUFFALO — This isn’t just a slump for the Pittsburgh Penguins anymore.

It’s a recurring nightmare.

Their 6-3 loss to Buffalo Wednesday night at KeyBank Center wasn’t simply another defeat; it was the latest in a series of games in which they were unable to protect a multiple-goal lead.

Forget Groundhog Day; their season is becoming more like living through The Exorcist on an endless loop.

With a slightly more scary ending.

And the Penguins in one of the lead roles.

Which is more than can be said about them in the Eastern Conference playoff race at the moment, considering that they’re 4-5-2 and marooned in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division.

The Penguins’ inability to protect a 3-1 lead in the third period against the Sabres led to their sixth consecutive defeat, and marked the second time in two nights that an opponent rallied from a multiple-goal deficit in the final period to beat them.

Tuesday, Boston overcame a 5-2 deficit en route to a 6-5 overtime victory.

And those two games weren’t isolated incidents. They have squandered leads of two or more goals in four of their first 11 games, including three in which they were up by two in the third period.

That’s become a nasty habit, and there’s little reason to believe it will be easy to break.

The details of the latest implosion almost don’t matter, but they go something like this:

After two reasonably solid periods and a goal by Jake Guentzel eight seconds into the third, the Pittsburgh Penguins seemed to have a pretty good grip on this game. At least until Buffalo ran off unanswered goals by Tage Thompson. And Victor Olofsson (two). And Alex Tuch. And Kyle Okposo.

“This one stings,” Mike Sullivan said. “Without a doubt.”

Stings? It probably feels more like having a molten-hot nail driven into their corneas.

This is a team whose lineup is loaded with accomplished veterans, the kind of guys who can reasonably be expected to close out games when the opportunity presents itself. Instead, the Penguins are playing like late-game leads have been coated with baby oil.

Which is to say, they’re all but impossible to hold on to.

“It’s disappointing,” Crosby said. “We’ve had a lead here the last couple of nights and just haven’t been able to finish it off.”

The Penguins are 0-5-1 in their past six games, just the second time they’ve gone six games without a victory since Sullivan took over as coach in December, 2015.

It looked as if they would pull out of their skid Wednesday night, after Jason Zucker staked them to a 1-0 lead in the first period and Josh Archibald put them up by two before J.J. Peterka beat Casey DeSmith late in the second period to get the Sabres on the board.

Guentzel countered that goal when play resumed in the third, however — “It’s big to get that one, at the start of the period like that,” Crosby said — and the Penguins seemed to be in a pretty good position.

For a few minutes, anyway. But Tage Thompson scored for Buffalo at 3:21, and the Sabres’ surge didn’t end until the third period did.

At which point Buffalo was celebrating and the Penguins, as usual, were looking for ways to explain what seemed to be almost inexplicable.

“You never want to give up a two-goal lead in the third,” Guentzel said.

Of course not. No matter how often the Penguins do it.

But there’s nothing they can do to change the outcome of any of the past six games. The focus has to be on not letting the streak swell to seven.

“There’s no secret in a situation like this,” Crosby said. “It just comes down to finding a way and being determined. … We can’t sit around and feel sorry for ourselves.”

Sullivan was rather subdued after the game, but said the formula for restoring the Pittsburgh Penguins’ confidence and swagger isn’t complicated.

“It just takes a little success,” he said. “It starts with one shift, one goal, a good period. A power-play goal. A blocked shot. A penalty-kill. I think it boils down to a lot of little things that add up to winning games.

“That’s where our focus needs to be. It needs to be on the process. We can’t get overwhelmed by the circumstance here, because we haven’t won in a handful of games. We just have to make sure we stay in the moment, focus on the process. That’s what’s going to give us the best opportunity to dig our way out of it.”

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Steve
Steve
25 days ago

Found it. Panicking! This is Mike Johnston era stuff.

Frank
Frank
25 days ago

More over confidence I guess! Zero excuse for this team to lose 6 in a row unless it is lack of interest or an incredible overestimation of abilities. At this rate there will be “plenty of good seats available” for all games. Guessing the new boys in Boston will not find this funny.

Wasnt
24 days ago
Reply to  Frank

Excellent point, Pens fans won’t show up for this. Even while watching at home I’m starting to watch other games cause I can sense Pens will blow the lead and the frustration is so irritating.

Luke
Luke
25 days ago

Sully’s voice and approach has gotten stale. It doesn’t help him that the new ownership has kept the core team and has not found a legit # 1 goalie. Their D is underperforming and Letang looks and plays his age. This will be the year they miss the playoffs and Sully
could be gone before Thanksgiving.

Michael Hanczar
Michael Hanczar
24 days ago

Yohe said today the veterans on this team are set in their ways, only want to play their way and that is why this team is trouble. You can see it on the power play where they are so careless with the puck. Tonight–Jake makes a stupid pass that leads to a Buff goal. Malkin a lazy clearing pass and it ends up in the net. This team plays better when the superstars are out of the lineup. Can’t blame Sully when you best players are a bunch of boneheads!

Wasnt
24 days ago

Barry Trotz isn’t doing anything.

Vince Gori
Vince Gori
24 days ago

This team is underwhelming! They look foolish in blowing a game against Boston, then outdo themselves tonight! Make a big deal of retaining the core in the off-season and we’re being rewarded with uninspired play. If this team doesn’t straighten out soon Sullivan may be the scapegoat. I can’t believe this team has quit on him, but one has to wonder. I see no problem with Josh Archibald, he gives a full effort. Some others….. I wish some of the vanquished cast of characters, Boyle, Aston-Reese, Matheson (I know he’s hurt) Rodrigues, and even Simon were still around. This group… Read more »

Jeff Young
Jeff Young
24 days ago
Reply to  Vince Gori

I thought I read somewhere it was because we had too many players with lots of talent…? I passed on watching this game for MACtion but I noticed the lead change from 3-1 Pens to the 6-3 final. “Must’ve just been like the last game”, I thought. Sigh. Maybe it was the jerseys?

Dan N
Dan N
24 days ago

Welcome to the new young NHL….it’s been a good ride…Hey maybe we can get Conner Bedard

Chase Cranson
Chase Cranson
24 days ago

You need to realize they have become the Steelers not sure who can they beat right now if anybody yes it’s early but hard to watch now they have problems and they are many

stan
24 days ago

Looks like a high draft pick next year..

Cal
Cal
24 days ago

Maybe its as simple as this team isn’t that good anymore.

Pete
Pete
24 days ago

Pathetic. A pro hockey team with zero ability to play defense!

Jstripsky
Jstripsky
24 days ago

I’m getting really tired of hearing the same things from coaches and players after each loss. We need attention to details. Have to play the right way. Take what the game gives us. Don’t make the high risk plays. It’s all talk and no action because when the puck drops it all goes out the window and the same things keep happening.

James
James
24 days ago
Reply to  Jstripsky

Yeah, I feel the same. There needs a new structural system or mindset to drive the players to see the ice differently. They seem to be out played lately because of a systemic flaw that is easily exploited. Everything seems to have problems. Don’t get me wrong though, I think this IS a good team, but they need fresh leadership. I like Mike Sullivan, but damn, maybe coaching is the problem here. His system may work, but this team needs a road to winning and they aren’t taking the Sullivan system road to get there. Are there not other ways… Read more »

Justin
Justin
24 days ago
Reply to  James

Yep! There’s a reason NHL coaches last 3.4 second in this league. Sully’s stale, his time has come. Love the dude but when it’s time, it’s time. You don’t have next year and the year after that to fix this. Action needs taken and soon!

Thomas
Thomas
24 days ago

Maybe I’m underthinking this…
Sully came in and gave the team an identity. Speed!!! Those players are old now. Can’t be expected to keep up with the younger players. They traded away the pk & shutdown line. Brought In players that can “potentially score 20 goals” ! And traded away stay at home d men. So who is going to play defense?
They are playing a high risk high reward game but unless they can put it together it’s going to be high risk low reward.