There are severe and increasingly stubborn problems dogging the Pittsburgh Penguins. Those problems are personified if not directly caused by the Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel duo.
The pair were responsible Friday and played simply even as a very good Boston team swarmed the Penguins. The line including Zach Aston-Reese accounted for a couple of goals in a 5-3 win. Yet for every good game which usually follows a spanking or discipline of some sort, there is the following let down.
For every overtime winner, there are mistakes and poor efforts which lead directly to opponents goals.
The Penguins have won two in a row and three of their last four games. Friday and Saturday combined, the team yielded 92 shots including 41 to a lackluster Los Angeles team which has scored the fewest goals in the NHL. If not for strong performances from Casey DeSmith and Matt Murray in goal, the Penguins easily could have, and perhaps should have lost both games.
The problems are defensive lapses, turnovers and poor zone coverage in the middle of the Penguins lineup. While the Penguins third line anchored by Derick Brassard has been a ghost (and PHN will get to that issue in short order), the Penguins second line with Malkin and Kessel should be so lucky as not to be noticeable.
Instead, the Malkin-Kessel pairing has been in the spotlight for all of the wrong reasons. As head coach Mike Sullivan addressed the media Saturday night, he could have been speaking directly to his second line.
“When you look at the last couple of games, we’ve got some wins, but I don’t think we were as difficult to play against,” said Sullivan. “I think we’ve got to make more of a concerted effort to play away from the puck and defend.”
Three times Saturday the Malkin-Kessel duo was on the ice when the LA Kings lit the lamp, even if Nikita Schrebak’s tally was waved off due to a video review which showed a raised skate over the blue line which resulted in an offside call. On the play, Kessel lost his man, Schrebak.
On each of the goals, the line was defensively irresponsible, especially on the first Kings goal when defenseman Jake Muzzin beat Malkin and Kessel to the Penguins zone and scored an uncontested goal.
Though Zach Aston-Reese, the newly installed left wing should be lauded for getting back to the defensive zone to take a man, he could only cover one.
Sullivan said very similar things, Friday night, “I thought we could have done a better job managing the puck,” he said. “I thought we turned the puck over five or six times at both blue lines.”
But that’s precisely what Malkin and Kessel did to set up the second LA goal, Saturday. Another cute play at the defensive blue line became extended offensive zone time for the Kings and a goal against.
Malkin was a lightning rod for criticism after the Penguins loss Wednesday to the Chicago Blackhawks. It was perhaps the worst public spanking of his career. He rebounded with a simple game, Friday.
“Obviously, Geno [sic] wants to be a difference-maker that he’s been for us for so long,” Mike Sullivan said of Malkin on Thursday. “One of the things we’ve talked to him about is just simplifying his game – slowing his skating down, supporting the breakout, stopping on pucks, when he has an opportunity to shoot the puck, shoot the puck, don’t look for the next play – and we think he’ll come out of it.”
Bear in mind, the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups without the Malkin-Kessel drama. The two barely played together en route to lifting the Cup. In 2016, Kessel was a prized third line piece which made the famed H-B-K line go. In 2017, Kessel showed up in spots as the Penguins gutted their way to another championship, this time on the back of Sidney Crosby and pair of goaltenders.
Since Malkin and Kessel were united last season, it’s become a high school level drama of hurt feelings, pouting, high-end production, and at other times absolutely awful hockey.
And the Penguins have been held hostage to the amusement park ride so volatile that Kennywood would likely deem it unsafe.
Since being united last season, Kessel has explicitly been a non-factor when separated. His disappearing act when separated late last season and into the playoffs was a contributing factor to the Penguins early exit. Kessel’s career season with 92 points was tainted by an abysmal two months when it mattered most.
The Brassard-Kessel duo should have been dynamic. Instead, it was an unmitigated failure with less puck support and coordination than an intermission game of bubble soccer.
Though Malkin has experienced great success without Kessel, including his dominant run with Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin in the final months of last season. The linemates simplified Malkin’s game, to his benefit. Something which has been inconsistent this season.
“I think part of it is just simplifying (Malkin’s) whole overall game. If he does that, he’s going to be fine,” concluded Mike Sullivan.
When Malkin and Kessel play together, simplifying their game appears to be as difficult as asking Riley Sheahan to add high-end creativity to his game. Or asking Jack Johnson to add offensive flair to his game.
Last season, Malkin and Kessel allowed more goals than scored. This season, they have yielded more scoring chances, more high danger scoring chances and shots, but not more goals. For now.
In full disclosure, no one has ever said on the record that either player insists on playing with the other. Off the record, people in the organization have grumbled about the lack of overall production when they are separated.
And so this season, when the duo is right, the Penguins soar. But when they are off, the entire team takes a hit as not only does the offensive production suffer, the defensive play yields too many chances and goals.
The Penguins don’t want a coin flip each night to see if their second line will score goals or give up goals. In that sense, the line is uplifting or toxic. As they go, so go the Penguins.
But the Penguins don’t need one line to determine their fate. They need four lines contributing, or in the absence of contributions, a lack of destruction. The Malkin-Kessel pair needs to adapt their games to the changing environment of simplicity which has been successful for the Penguins or…there needs to be some major changes.