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Report Card: Mistake-Filled Penguins Too Soft, ‘Have Holes (to Fix)’



Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was a touch defiant after the Penguins lost 4-1 to the Dallas Stars. Center Lars Eller struck a determined tone while acknowledging a fundamental fact that no one wants to admit.

The Penguins played soft. They lost a couple of net-front battles without generating any of their own. Those lost battles in the crucial area became goals, the very same pressure and goals the Penguins are not getting.

Coach Mike Sullivan echoed Eller’s tone, though neither used the word soft. Sullivan spoke of the Penguins’ need to create broken plays and chaos in the offensive zone.

“I think there are things that we can do to increase our chances, like fighting for the blue paint, making the goalie sightlines difficult, (and) creating broken plays,” said Sullivan. “A lot of times, those broken plays are the hardest ones to defend because they force a lot of decision-making and hesitation. And you know, the goaltenders have To fight to find the puck in the chaos.”

The Penguins had a bevy of beauties in the first period but scored only once. However, those chances were on the rush and pretty plays. They never again had the sustained pressure or cavalcade of great chances, trading those opportunities for absentminded defensive efforts and mistakes in the second and third periods.

If a team plays well but makes ghastly mistakes that fill their own net, did they play well?

Penguins Analysis

Eller is quickly becoming a blunt breath of fresh air in the Penguins locker room. If there is a player who can hold others accountable in a similar way as Matt Cullen, it might be him.

“I think during two periods — I kind of really liked our game. I thought we played good enough to win, but we’ve got some holes that we’ve got to shore up, and we’re all aware,” said Eller. “We’ve got to go do the work.

“Little bit of break breakdowns defensively without the puck, like just little breakdowns where we miss assignments, and it gives them great chances and maybe didn’t cost us today, but they got the great chances. Other times it was just fighting in front of the net, and we were on the wrong side too many times today.”

Mistakes and losing the net-front battles is a good recipe for disaster, not success.

There isn’t a rational explanation. Perhaps there’s not even an irrational explanation, as the Pittsburgh Penguins again fell asleep in the second period. If Mike Sullivan’s hair looks more like Anderson Cooper’s gray coiff soon, that will be easily explainable. The walkabouts, mistakes, and inability to finish chances are not.

The team played a concise and aggressive first period with a direct pursuit to the net, good puck possession, and scoring chances.

The team did little of that in the second period, instead giving up a pair of goals on absent-minded plays featuring turnovers, soft defensive zone coverage, and outright slow effort to get into the action.

Crosby was politely defiant following the game. The captain felt the team had enough chances.

“I mean, tonight, we generated some really good ones. I don’t think in St Louis — I felt like we generated some good ones, but probably at the expense of giving them up the other way. I don’t think tonight that was the case,” Crosby said. “Obviously (we) made some mistakes. It ended up in our net, but you know a lot less of that. So we probably got more offensive chances and gave up less, so it happens sometimes.”

With respect to the game’s lead statesman, he’s probably being too kind to his mates. The Penguins got beat. Again. If one person calls you a horse, ignore it. If two people call you a horse, consider it. If three people call you a horse … buy a saddle.

The Penguins are getting beaten. They’re consistently making mistakes. They’re consistently not playing winning hockey. One stinker in St. Louis can be ignored. A rough night in Detroit can be filed as an off night. But three games in a row when the team is stressing the importance of the games … buy a saddle.

The Penguins well outchanced Dallas in the first period but had only two high-danger chances in the second and yielded a whopping six high-danger chances in the third as a 2-1 Dallas lead became a 4-1 win.

The oddity isn’t that the Penguins played a universally terrible third period. The oddity is that when they make a mistake, they make several at once, as they did in the second period. When the Penguins crumble, the entire play goes up in flames quickly.

The second Dallas goal was a remarkable abdication of responsibility. Evgeni Malkin, who made several turnovers by holding onto the puck too long or trying to stickhandle out of trouble, turned the puck over at center ice. The Penguins recovered until Erik Karlsson turned it over in the defensive zone. D-man John Ludvig (who was knocked out of the game shortly afterward) took himself out of the play by trying to block a shot, and before the puck hit the Penguins’ net, only Evgeni Malkin was back to defend.

It was a jaw-droppingly terrible sequence.

Good teams have those. The Penguins have them consistently.

The good news on the Penguins front is that the third line with Drew O’Connor, Lars Eller, and Radim Zohorna again showed well. They played simply. Zohorna gets to pucks and is a disruptive forechecker. Both he and O’Connor had Grade A scoring chances after Zohorna created puck possession from good forechecks.

The good news probably ends there, regardless of the locker room sentiment.

Penguins Report Card

We’ll start with the high points. All advanced stats courtesy of

O’Connor-Eller-Zohorna: A

They were exceptional in the first period. Zohorna really gets after pucks and creates turnovers and forecheck pressure. Like St. Louis, they dominated. The line had a 7-1 shot advantage and a 5-2 scoring chance advantage. Eller also rang the crossbar shorthanded.

Alex Nedeljkovic: B

Yes, he made a bad mistake on the Stars’ third goal. He admitted it and was kicking himself after the game. However, he also played pretty well before and after that. There were no softies, and I liked his rebound control.

However, as reader MDubs also pointed out, Nedeljkovic’s errant lunge leading to the goal was indeed set up by a terrible long-distance pass by Kris Letang to a covered Sidney Crosby at center ice. Crosby could do little before being swarmed and giving up the puck. Those are the mistakes that cannot happen.

Evgeni Malkin: C

Dallas had a clear plan to deal with the red-hot Malkin. They stayed in his back pocket all night. Where Malkin went, at least one Stars defender shared his socks.

Malkin tried to create space but created several turnovers, leading to offensive chances against. The line got five shots on the net but gave up four. They also generated only one high-danger chance.

Penguins Power Play: B-

The team generated 10 shots on three chances. They had some great looks on the 39-second 4v3. Sometimes, one must tip your cap to the opposing goalie, and Dallas’ Jake Oettinger made a couple of filthy saves.

Fourth Line: Mixed Grade

I thought Noel Acciari and Matt Nieto had some moments when they were noticeable and got after the puck on the forecheck. Acciari stopped being too conservative while playing center and let loose.

I can’t say much good about Jeff Carter’s game. He’s not getting to the wall on the forecheck, not winning anything close to 50% of the loose puck battles, and I prefer not to pile on.

I suspect that John Ludvig’s injury–he left the game in the second period after being knocked out (or nearly knocked out) by his hit on Radek Faksa–might allow the Penguins to call-up a 13th forward. Zohorna made a huge difference on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ third line, and I believe Sam Poulin or Colin White could do the same on the fourth.