They earned points in eight straight before a loss on Sunday but are winless in three games. The juxtaposition of success and concern since Evgeni Malkin returned to the lineup could not fit the Pittsburgh Penguins more perfectly. The Penguins looked good enough in the first period, and good in the third period of their 4-3 loss to the LA Kings on Sunday.
Now, don’t be silly, it’s not Malkin’s fault even as Sunday was yet another uneven performance with him in the lineup. He returned on Jan. 11. The team is 7-2-2 since his return but nothing has been easy or looked as good since.
Their power play is beginning to click after a season of languishing in the bottom third.
Their penalty kill has dropped several points after leading the league for most of the first half of the season.
Their lineup is now more talented. Their results are now more inconsistent.
Last week, PHN asked Mike Sullivan about winning without their best. By Sunday, everyone is asking about losing.
“We’ve had moments when we’ve been better, but it hasn’t been consistent. And that’s the game we have to bring–is a consistent game. Right now, it’s just not as consistent. I thought in the second period, in particular, we weren’t as diligent. You know, we had some plays there to make and we didn’t execute,” Sullivan explained. “And as a result, we gave up some transition opportunities for LA. You know, part of it is on the execution side, when the plays are there had to be made, we’ve got to make them. And when they’re not, we can’t get stubborn.”
Oh, the Penguins have been stubborn without exerting a force of will. Stubbornly inconsistent. After weeks of rigid systematic hockey, their game bears little resemblance. The same mistakes have occurred repeatedly over the past few weeks; defensemen getting involved in the offensive zone but the team giving up transition chances (breakaways and two-on-ones), cycling around the offensive zone without getting to the net, and poor puck management.
And, yes, the cultural shift coincided with the arrival of Evgeni Malkin. But it’s not Malkin allowing opponents behind him for breakaways. Or not going to the net.
There are a lot of players not living up to their potential and who are listlessly coasting through large portions of the game.
“We just need guys to step up and take advantage of the opportunities that are in front of them and so that’s part of it. When our team is at its best, we’re getting balanced scoring…And lately, that hasn’t been the case and that makes it that much more challenging to win,” Sullivan said. “Guys are going to get opportunities to have a positive impact on the game. They’ve got to make the most of it. It’s our job as coaches to try and put them in those positions and we’ll do our very best as well to try to help them along the way here. That’s something that I think is obvious that we have to try to correct here.”
Evan Rodrigues is back in the top six. He has two points (0-2-2) in the last 11 games. A goal wouldn’t hurt Zach Aston-Reese, either. Danton Heinen, who was a late scratch due to injury on Sunday, had just two assists in the last six games.
That lack of offense isn’t on Malkin. Kasperi Kapanen remains a ghost.
The Penguins coaches are trying everything to get Kapanen onto the stat sheet. He played fourth-line minutes on Sunday. He had a good first period but was AWOL after that. The fourth line with Dominik Simon, Kapanen, and Brian Boyle had one shift in the final 30 minutes.
Kapanen especially has the ability to be a game-breaker for the Penguins. Instead, he’s become a bench sitter.
“I think it’s that everyone’s just going to work that much harder. I think when you play that kind of game where you play a more simple game–a go to the net game–you’ve got to be ready to take some crosschecks, you’ve got to be ready to take a few bruises in order to get some goals. And I think that’s just got to be our mindset of our team moving forward a little bit.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins had an identity in the first half of the season. Injuries, COVID absences, and more injuries kept the Penguins lineup in constant flux. Yet they raced up the standings from early November through mid-January. They had that identity that Rust indirectly referenced.
In that charge, with a battered roster, they got ugly goals, goals on the rush, and filled the net. The role players filled the role with aplomb. Since Evgeni Malkin hit the ice, only Crosby and his linemates have filled their role consistently. The Penguins game has become soft, mistake-filled, and inconsistent.
It is not Malkin’s fault that a team is losing its way. It’s a mindset, a need for the good stubbornness, not the bad, and a call for others to step forward. There have been a lot of passengers, perhaps relying on Malkin and Crosby just a bit too much.
After Tuesday, the Penguins will have a week to think about it.
So will GM Ron Hextall.