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Penguins Six-Pack: Offensive Lack of Goals; Ludvig Adds Punch



Michael Bunting

Remember when the Pittsburgh Penguins had one of the most feared and productive offenses in the NHL?

When it seemed as if they could score almost at will, and pile up goals in bunches?

It really wasn’t all that long ago, although it might seem that way now, considering that the Penguins’ 4-0 loss to Edmonton at PPG Paints Sunday was the third time they have been shut out in the past seven games, and that they’ve scored on precisely one of the 119 shots on goal with which they have been credited during their three-game losing streak.

That includes the 39 they were unable to get past Oilers goalie Calvin Pickard while Edmonton was launching 40 at Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry.

“There were (scoring) opportunities on both sides,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We couldn’t seem to finish, once again.”

Which illustrates why the Penguins rank 25th in the league, generating an average of just 2.83 goals per game.

1. Ludvig steps up

Although the Penguins have long preferred finesse to physicality, there are times when a show of toughness is the only reasonable response.

John Ludvig figured that Edmonton winger Warren Foegele high-sticking Erik Karlsson midway through the second period — an act that seemed inadvertent, but still yielded a double-minor — was one of those.

He immediately went after Foegele and began trading punches with him, earning an instigation minor, fighting major and 10-minute misconduct.

“I honestly didn’t see what happened at all,” Ludvig said. “I just saw (Karlsson) on the ice, bleeding. I wasn’t sure if he got hit, or what happened, so I just stepped in there.”

Without hesitating, which is why it’s safe to assume that, in addition to his penalty minutes, Ludvig picked up the respect and appreciation of his teammates, who have been far too passive, far too often in such situations in recent years.

“It’d be nice to see a lot more pushback,” Ludvig said. “We know we need to start bringing that.”

2. Lining up

The latest configuration of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top line, with Sidney Crosby between Michael Bunting and Bryan Rust, debuted against the Oilers.

Its members accounted for 12 of the Penguins’ 39 shots, including six by Rust, who rejoined the lineup after missing seven games because of an unspecified upper-body injury.

Rust performed in his usual high-octane style and Crosby, who had been in an obvious funk for the previous week, looked a bit more like himself.

But while Bunting, acquired from Carolina in the Jake Guentzel deal, has been solid in his first two games and adds some blue-collar qualities the Penguins sorely need, he probably would be a better fit for a middle-six role, at least on a good team.

Although not entirely miscast as a first-liner — hey, the guy did have back-to-back 23-goal seasons in Toronto — he’s not the kind of pure goal-scorer who can maximize Crosby’s playmaking abilities. (You know, like Guentzel did.)

If Kyle Dubas can’t find a Guentzel-type scorer via a trade or free agency before next season, Bunting would be a perfectly capable placeholder. But both he and the team will be better off if he can be bumped a rung or two down the depth chart.

3. Crowd control

The announced attendance Sunday was 17,753, and it looked as if most of the tickets that were in circulation translated to seats that were filled.

But with the Pittsburgh Penguins all but officially out of playoff contention, turnouts figure to suffer in at least some of their nine remaining home dates.

It’s a plus for them that two of those are kid-friendly Saturday afternoon games, and turnouts for the next few games at PPG Paints Arena might hold up if disgruntled season-ticket holders offer their seats to friends and professional acquaintances who don’t often get to attend games.

Don’t be surprised, though, if some ticket-buyers opt to sell to fans of teams that tend to get good support in their road games, like the New York Rangers and Boston.

4. Letang’s relapse

One of the most pleasant surprises for the Penguins through the first two-third of the season was the two-way play of defenseman Kris Letang.

He consistently contributed all over the ice, performing at a level beyond anything he had reached in a number of years. If ever.

But in recent weeks, his work has been pockmarked by major, unforced mistakes, like the apparent clearing attempt he sent directly onto the stick of Oilers center Connor McDavid little more than a minute into the game, leading to the only goal Edmonton would need.

Why Letang’s play has deteriorated of late isn’t clear, but this is: On a team that has very little margin for error, Letang has been making far too many of them.

He’s shown that he’s capable of much better, and the Penguins will need him to elevate his play during the four years remaining on his contract.

5. Interesting incentive

When a team has dropped out of contention for a playoff berth — especially if it has been mathematically eliminated from the race — players routinely cite competition for jobs in the coming season as a source of motivation after the game results no longer really matter.


Shouldn’t every guy, with the possible exception of those who plan to retire after the current season, have been interested in securing his place in the team’s future since the first day of training camp the previous fall?

Something to keep in mind as the Pittsburgh Penguins slog through what’s left of their regular season.

6. Wild, wild West

If the Stanley Cup playoffs began today — and, no, they still won’t get underway until next month — the Oilers would not have home ice in their opening-round series, which says a whole lot more about the caliber of competition in the Western Conference than it does about any shortcomings Edmonton has.

The Oilers sit fifth in the West and would be matched with Colorado in Round 1.

That means a first-round best-of-seven pitting Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl against Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar, among others.

It also means, at the moment, three clubs in that conference — Vancouver, Dallas and Winnipeg — actually have had more productive seasons so far than the Oilers and Avalanche.

So while there are some quality teams in the East, the most entertaining series this spring almost certainly will be on the other side of the continent.