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Kingerski: Changes Necessary, Flailing Penguins Self-Inflict Another Loss

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PIttsburgh Penguins, Evan Rodrigues

There have been hot and cold, hit and miss, Jekyll and Hyde Pittsburgh Penguins teams through the years. There have been teams that shocked with a late surge and teams that broke hearts with unsettling losses. But perhaps no Penguins team in memory has shown the disparity between the brilliance of the now-distant memory 10-game winning streak and the abysmal, rock-bottom 6-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night.

At least, everyone in black and gold should hope it’s rock bottom.

If there’s a lower rung on the ladder, these Penguins have not been on that step in a long time.

In a season that seems increasingly like the last for the Penguins core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang together, this train is going off the rails quickly.

Because of an outstanding first half, the Penguins would have to be incredibly bad for the next two months to miss the playoffs. They’ve managed to build themselves a nearly insurmountable 11-to-16 point lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings.

But the Penguins have been going sideways, and now they are headed south. The team is 4-4-3 in their last 11 games, which is .500. They’ve lost three straight.  The camouflage of citing good moments or strong efforts during a comeback attempt, such as the win over the Philadelphia Flyers and unsuccessful rally against the Carolina Hurricanes, ring hollow.

I’m both happy and unhappy to say PHN and this keyboard have been calling out the sliding play and growing shortcomings. We asked if it was a problem that the Penguins were winning without their best. We asked if the Penguins’ mindset had changed. And we asked the ever open-ended question if the Penguins felt they were on the right track.

We haven’t quite yelled, “Iceberg right ahead,” but…Iceberg, right ahead.

And we don’t mean the Pittsburgh Penguins mascot.

We put it to head coach Mike Sullivan on Thursday night. Is this stinker a game to shower well and forget, or does he need to make changes? After a moment of reflection, Sullivan firmly said they would not look past it.

“I don’t know the answer to that right now. You know, for me, I’ve got to digest it. I watch the film and, you know, we’ll see where we go with it,” Sullivan said. “But I don’t think it’s a ‘let’s look by this one’…I think we’ve got to learn through each experience. And you know, the performance we had tonight simply wasn’t good enough.

“I don’t think it’s from a lack of effort by any stretch. We’ve got to play the game smarter…We can’t beat ourselves in certain instances. And I think that’s been the case the last few games. And so we’ll see what we can learn from this one, but it’s not going to be one of those, ‘Let’s look by this,’ no chance.”

The Penguins’ self-inflicted wounds are now bordering on abuse.

Turnovers.

Blown coverages.

More turnovers. Odd-man rushes.

Floating in the offensive zone (*ahem, Kasperi Kapanen). Perimeter play.

And more turnovers.

The New Jersey Devils’ first goal on Thursday night was a beautiful microcosm of the Penguins’ play. Turnover in the offensive zone. Marcus Petterson momentarily pinched at center ice allowing the Devils a brief two-on-one. As four Penguins raced to the defensive zone, no one actually covered the two Devils attackers. Four Penguins. Two Devils. And Nico Hischier’s pass skipped through the crease (and Pettersson) to an uncovered Jesper Bratt.

Of course, the second goal was about the same, as the defensemen were ready to transition forward, only to realize the forwards were coming back. Evan Rodrigues served a Grade A chance to Bratt on a silver platter. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

Bring up the Pittsburgh Penguins Prospects?

No, the Penguins don’t have a crop of prospects ready to kick down the door to the NHL as they did back in 2016 and 2017. Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare are still getting their feet in the professional game.

Drew O’Connor and Radim Zohorna also have some offensive promise. However, neither are to the level of being able to change much, though Zohorna might be a temporary upgrade over Kasperi Kapanen’s lost game. O’Connor is best in a fourth-line role, but can we say the fourth line is a problem?

Valterri Puustinen and Kasper Bjorkqvist might have a bit of promise, too, but they’re not energy players or generally good enough (yet) for solid third-line duty.

“I think our players are well aware of what our game looks like when we’re at our best and the way we need to play in order to give ourselves the best chance to win. I think our players have a clear understanding of that,” said Sullivan. “Now it’s a matter of going out and executing night in and night out. We’ve got to make sure we control what we can.”

Penguins defenseman Mike Matheson was a standout on Thursday. In a sea of ugliness, he had a pretty good game. Three of his shots were blocked, but he kept several plays alive and set up Brock McGinn for a beautiful chance in the first period.

Matheson has been playing well, and on a night when Marcus Pettersson was benched and John Marino wore part of that with a minus-4, Matheson was noticeably creating offensive pressure. He offered PHN the big picture view, and there are positives.

“There’s definitely frustration. I mean, it’s our job to win hockey games. And when you’re not doing it’s really frustrating. Everyone cares so much. And so I think there would be an issue if there wasn’t any frustration, right,” Matheson said rhetorically. “There’d be a problem if we were in this little stretch and nobody cared, and that’s definitely not the case. I think you kind of have to reset and look at the big picture and know that as much as this last little stretch has been tough. We’ve played a lot of good hockey through the season, and there’s still a lot of hockey left to be played and know right now isn’t the perfect time to be peaking either…”

Fair enough. The Penguins have 28 games to figure it out before the playoffs come calling.

But it’s not really a little stretch. It’s closer to six weeks, and things aren’t getting better. The problems have become bad habits. The bad habits have become a style. And the style has rotted the Penguins recently pristine game.

Things haven’t been this ugly since Nov. 2018, and a protracted losing streak caused former GM Jim Rutherford to threaten changes publicly, then trade away the popular two-time Cup winner, Carl Hagelin.

It’s not just a three-game skid. It’s a culmination of weeks of multiplying mistakes and declining production from various parts of the lineup. Jeff Carter (two goals, 17 games), Kasperi Kapanen (0 points, 12 games), Evan Rodriges (seven points, two goals, 16 games), Zach Aston-Reese (one goal, 45 games).

I’d cite turnover stats, but those are notoriously unreliable (and low in home buildings).

“No chance,” the Pittsburgh Penguins look past this one. That’s a start. The next step is making changes. Either by GM Ron Hextall or Sullivan, or both. Something changed with these Penguins.

Simply put, changes are needed. As Sullivan said, this isn’t good enough.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Chris R
Chris R
9 months ago

Not to get psychological…but could all the press and stress about upcoming trades and/or contract renewals—or even the new ownership—be throwing things out of whack? Is there a bellwether player (other than Crosby) who’s leading the flock astray? Are they so used to operating in crisis mode they’re recreating it? Because there were so many injuries and it was always “next man up” did they not get time to really gel with the new faces, or is their identity tied up in having to make do? Is there too much pressure to produce knowing how much is riding on this… Read more »

Greg Chemerys
Greg Chemerys
9 months ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

Good point Dan, but if the contract issue is affecting their attitudes and play, should they be extended?

Frank
Frank
9 months ago
Reply to  Chris R

Chris, I understand your point, but one very annoying thing about Penguin teams is how fragile their emotions are. They also seem to float some crutch for poor play. So we hear about “first game home from a trip’ or “trade rumors” or “feuds with the coach/playing style” or “afternoon starts” or “contract negotiations.” I appreciate the “they are human” aspect of all of this, but on the flip they are paid huge amounts of money to play a game most of them have played since the age of 5. And there is some tough sledding with that and bad… Read more »

Bill
Bill
9 months ago

Alex Nylander is having a very good stint in Wilkes-Barre this year and has NHL experience. In the middle of this bad stretch, what is the harm in calling him up? Give him a chance, play him with Sid and Guentz. I know Guentz-Sid-Rust has been our best line this year, but you can’t just keep putting out the same product and expecting results to change. That is the definition of insanity. Give the first line a new look, Let Rusty play with Geno and get some scoring from both lines. Something has to change, and I think that falls… Read more »

Steve
Steve
9 months ago
Reply to  Bill

I agree. I would give Nylander a look, but with Malkin so that Carter can move back to the third line to bolster the depth. I don’t think it is totally coincidental that WBS has been better after Nylander arrived. Also, I checked and he isn’t waiver eligible so there’s no risk in the move.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve
Jason
Jason
9 months ago

This team hasn’t played the blue collar hockey that was winning games since geno returned. Not to say it’s his fault but he does tend to play a strictly high risk offensive game and that bleeds into the rest of team. Why play hard nose hockey if your star is playing globe trotter hockey

Stephen Powanda
Stephen Powanda
9 months ago

Simon has done nothing good. ZAR is just taking up space. What have Rodriguez and Kapanen done lately? If Hextall doesn’t make some changes it is going to be same old same old!

ric jefferies
ric jefferies
9 months ago

Coaches are paid to fix problems, they are not paid to be cheer leaders. Pens don’t play as a single unit, quick to blame the Goalie when opposing team gets past the front line and back line with the puck and scores. Team is disorganized in the offensive zone with mostly desperate shots at the net and passing from mostly stationary positions rather than passing with movement. Worse is defending their zone, EVERYBODY is a defenseman when they’re on the ice, not just the back line. Defending the goal starts in the offensive zone. This is the time when coaches… Read more »

Uros
Uros
9 months ago

Well, let me throw this out there. A landslide of terrible trades happened after our last cup win. Fleury, Marcus, Zucker, Kapanen, Matheson… Those are all pretty expensive contracts that nobody would take on with the sort of play they’ve been offering. It’s something we need to dig ourselves out of, but it’s difficult to do because there aren’t many stupid GMs that want to be on the receiving end of those. We want to blame Malkin and Letang? The old core? The Pens style of play? Really? Just look at how much money is tied up in the listed… Read more »

Kris
Kris
9 months ago

May-be, just may-be the plan this year was to ride this group and start the rebuild next year? As frustrated as we are right now, next year could be the ugly beginning of the next chapter. Right now we have 6 forwards (Sid, Jake, Brock, Teddy, Zucker and Mr. Carter) and six defensemen signed for next year. That will be $29-million in cap space. Will that be when they start to build a “tougher” roster?

Lisa Nath
Lisa Nath
9 months ago

It just feels like the team is swimming in quick sand and things are getting worse each game and they don’t know how to get out of this . Do you think they can turn it around? I hope hextal is willing to do something to help the team .

Jackmccrory
Jackmccrory
9 months ago

Time for Kapinen to eat nachos.

Jstripsky
Jstripsky
9 months ago

Put guys from WB into the lineup. I don’t care if they’re ready or not. I don’t care if they have less talent than who they’re replacing. Send a message to the current roster that the party’s over. Work hard or sit. If they’re going to lose, why not give the young guys some experience. Maybe they’ll surprise everyone and win a few games.