Penguins Sinking; Team Showing Ugly Reality with Heartless Loss
NEWARK — It would be hard to pinpoint the exact moment the Pittsburgh Penguins were out of the game. Perhaps the opening puck drop. When Dawson Mercer was gifted a goal in front of the net after goalie Tristan Jarry and defenseman Kris Letang misplayed it, New Jersey led 4-0 later in the second period.
It might as well have been 10.
In the third period, Mercer completed the hat trick on a four-on-one, but the game was long over before that.
The life and energy were visibly gone by the middle of the second period as heads hung low on the bench at 3-0.
“It’s always tough when you’re not getting to our game early on. But at the same time, we have to stay focused,” Kris Letang said. “And you never know, the game can change pretty quickly (but) we didn’t push enough to change the momentum of the game.”
With five games to go, the Penguins built on their mixed-bag weekend, which featured a disheartening loss and a lackluster win, but they didn’t build on the positive inertia of the win. They built on the uninspired, tired play.
They look every bit like a team at the end of the line. Ready to pack it in. Ready to go home.
A few more games like that and they will get their wish.
Perhaps the hearts of fans would have more colorful words to describe the disheartening loss; probably a few more than a family-friendly outlet would print. Those words would be earned.
With everything on the line, the Pittsburgh Penguins did not show up. In the process, they are showing the organization and us precisely who they are. And it is not pretty.
“I don’t anticipate there’s going to be any carryover. We’re going to park this one,” Bryan Rust said. “We know we have to do a lot better than that, and I think we’re going to bring it out Thursday.”
Sure, the Penguins might find a way to win a couple of their final four games and squeak into the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs. They’ve indeed shown the ability to show up for a night or two, as they did against the Colorado Avalanche in Denver two weeks ago.
And they’ve shown an ability to be utterly, devastatingly disengaged despite the high stakes, despite the need for their best, despite everything to gain.
The Penguins were outshot 26-18 through two periods, but the tally seemed generous to them.
The critical indicators were overwhelming in New Jersey’s favor. Through 40 minutes (the “competitive” portion of the game), New Jersey outchanced the Penguins 24-10. The high-danger chances were 10-5.
Or you can forget the numbers and use your eyes.
That was even worse.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby pushed back on questions regarding concern about the direction of the team, that they’re not playing well over the last month.
“That’s your opinion,” Crosby told a reporter. “I think we’ve done some good things. I think there have been some games we felt like we (should have) grabbed a point if not two.”
Unfortunately, the Penguins were never in the game. They were never competitive, as New Jersey weaved through the offensive zone, showing off their speed and hunting pucks with vigor.
The Penguins never did.
“We couldn’t seem to score in the first half of the game to give us some life,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think if we could have found a way to score, just get the first goal, while you know we had it in striking distance, I think it could have helped our energy.”
The Penguins had a trio of power plays in the first 25 minutes. Those were just as ugly. They mustered four shots as they glided around the perimeter or stood flat-footed without urgent movement or crisp passing.
As Evgeni Malkin argued Saturday, “Do you think we’re not trying to shoot?”
But the Penguins will never get lanes when the PK is allowed to set up and stay in position.
“I don’t know if urgency is the right word. When our power plays is at its best, there’s movement, there’s motion, there’s a shot mentality, and we’re retrieving pucks,” Sullivan said. “When we’re not at our best, we tend to be stagnant, robotic.
“It’s not from a lack of care or anything of that nature. Sometimes to the fan, it may appear that way, but I can assure you that’s not the case.”
About 1000 miles away, the Penguins’ two closes pursuers, the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres, were locked in a 1-1 battle. The result of that game mattered far less than the message the Penguins sent, loud and clear (Florida won 2-1 to overtake the Penguins for the second wild card).
The Penguins have been trying to tell us for months who they are. It may have been inconceivable to many, including decision-makers such as GM Ron Hextall, that the team could lack the ability to rise to the challenge.
There are still a half dozen Stanley Cup winners at the top of the lineup.
But here we are. Over the past few weeks, the bell rang. And rang. And rang again. The Penguins have answered it scandalously few times.
The team can deflect or say they’re looking forward. The team has said a lot of things.
Actions speak louder.
With everything to play for, the Penguins … didn’t. Like a boxer beaten by the fight, arms to their sides, head down, it was over early. The loss is yet another glaring indictment of the team and its motivation.
At some point, they are who they’ve shown us they are.
And since this team is largely signed for several more years, they are in trouble. Deep trouble today and tomorrow.