LAS VEGAS — The best players of the Pittsburgh Penguins were decidedly not their best during a third-period meltdown Saturday in a 3-2 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena.
Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson, and other prime-time players defended with tepid interest or made inexplicable decisions leading to each Vegas goal.
A strong 2-0 lead at the start of the third period became a sour, nearly unacceptable loss. It was also impactful as the Penguins continue to trail in the wild-card race.
Overall, it was an abysmal collapse, but not without some good performances. Also, it was only one game. However, the loss did again expose the same potential cracks in the team’s foundation that the losing spells highlighted in November and December.
And that’s the part that should stick with both coach Mike Sullivan and president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas.
“I think the difference was just attention to detail and structure. We didn’t defend hard enough,” said Sullivan. “All three of the goals were seemingly nothing-plays that ended up in the back of the net. We had numbers back, and we’ve got to have some predictability in how we defend. And we didn’t have it.”
It’s generally the same players who are typically exposed by defensive lapses or unpredictable defending. I’ll leave you to chew on how to finish the rest of that paragraph because it’s an incredibly complex issue that we’ll spend days dissecting.
Saturday didn’t start as an awful game.
The Vegas flu is real, but the Penguins were immune for 40 minutes. In fact, several Penguins’ breakouts in the first period were sharp and fast, and a couple were creative, too.
The Penguins found their legs in the second period, dominating the frame with a pair of goals and puck possession.
“I thought we were fine, and I thought we were playing hard,” said Sullivan. “|We were trying to establish the game that we are trying to play.”
And then the third period happened.
It was one of the worst periods the Penguins have played this season — not the worst, unfortunately, but it was enough to earn a strong rebuke.
They allowed three goals in 4:22 and trailed by the halfway point of the third.
Penguins fourth-liner Jansen Harkins spoke with PHN after the game. He tried to provide an answer as to what went wrong. His answer was punctuated more by shoulder shrugs and head shakes.
“I don’t really know. I mean. Uh. Yeah, I don’t really have an answer,” Harkins said.
Neither team scored in the opening period. The Golden Knights defend their cage as well as any team in the NHL, if not better. See the 2023 Stanley Cup banner as proof.
The Penguins showed good legs in the opening 20 minutes and got the puck to the net with bodies in front. Sticks were tied up, bodies taken, and the team didn’t get that extra stick on the puck needed to light the lamp, but the effort and location signified the “intent,” coach Mike Sullivan stressed Saturday morning.
The first half of the second period had all of the enthusiasm of a 6 a.m. flight home from Las Vegas, but the Penguins found their stride before Vegas.
After sustained zone time, defenseman Ryan Graves pinched low and chipped the puck off the feet of scrambling goalie Logan Thompson into the net. After another lackluster power play, the Penguins’ top line with Sidney Crosby lit the lamp.
Thompson made one nifty save on Crosby’s slot one-timer, but with Colin White screening Thompson, Jake Guentzel subsequently scored from the right circle.
The Penguins had found their rhythm. The injury-ravaged Golden Knights took another period. In the third, the Penguins had just five shots despite trailing for the majority of the period.
They were improving for 40 minutes, then it all flipped. What happened? Aliens?
The Penguins had just five shots in the third period, as Vegas didn’t sit back to defend their newfound lead, nor did the Penguins offer much pushback until the final minutes.
Everything comes with a caveat: until the third period. EVERYTHING.
The Penguins stars, with some emphasis on Evgeni Malkin, were absent without leave in the third period. Malkin vacated his spot on the game-winner to do a drive-by on Ivan Barbashev, who was already covered by Erik Karlsson. Malkin also did a stick wave instead of defending a rushing Chandler Stephenson on the second goal. Stephenson continued with speed deep into the Penguins zone. In the resulting scramble, no one covered Pavel Dorofeyev at the net front despite equal numbers.
Before then, the Penguins were building to a pretty good game.
The Penguins’ breakouts were surprisingly good for a nearly week-long layoff. The Penguins were able to use the wheel and get some speed out of their zone.
Until the third period.
They also connected several hard chips off the wall to center ice. Specifically, White was hard on the wall, and the Penguins’ transition was ready for his defensive play, able to generate possession and a rush into the Golden Knights zone.
We’re grading a little bit on the curve tonight. It just wasn’t going to be a great game. Vegas is crushed with injuries to significant contributors Jack Eichel, William Karlsson, William Carrier, Michael Amadio, and Shea Theodore.
Until the third period.
The Penguins haven’t played hockey in a week. They were almost certainly going to be a little sluggish or rusty. However, the important element — effort– was largely there (except for that stretch in the second period when both teams needed their blanket for a nap).
One thing the Penguins didn’t do as well as they did in their 3-0 shutout on Nov. 19 was to hold the puck low and force the Vegas defensemen off the posts. Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy prefers to station his defensemen near the net like ferocious gargoyles. The best way to beat them is to hold the puck low, forcing them to defend.
In the third period, the Penguins stopped defending and stopped moving their feet to skate with Vegas, and a few defensive whoppers by star players put lots of trouble on the buffet plate.
Penguins Report Card
Team: B, then D
Grading on the curve, the Penguins earned their third period 2-0 lead. Aside from the usual couple of defensive blunders by the usual suspects, the Penguins clogged the defensive zone with tight gaps and coverage. They possessed the puck in the Vegas zone, though they didn’t hold it in the low zone enough.
It was a solid game, especially given the circumstances.
Until the third period.
Tristan Jarry: B+
Jarry made the saves he needed to make. There was some question if he could have stopped the game-winner by Brisson, and he could have, but when a player with a good shot is absolutely uncovered between the dots, it’s a good look. Also, if you look closely, Brisson–maybe intentionally, maybe not–provided some misdirection with the shot. He curled to the short side (left) when it looked like he would continue toward the right circle. It was a goal that looked bad on TV but was actually pretty slick.
Jarry was far from one of the Penguins’ problems.
Erik Karlsson: D
There is a school of thought that if Karlsson only submits a C performance, it’s a failing grade. I won’t disagree. He wasn’t much of a factor. Jarry bailed out Karlsson’s big mistake in the second period when Karlsson drifted well out of position, and Ivan Barbashev had a breakaway. Jarry made a good glove save.
Evgeni Malkin: Please report to the principal’s office.
Terrible game. Just a terrible game with defensive gaffes and a lack of offensive production. Malkin had one shot and no additional attempts. His grade is indeed a big, red F. Perhaps his worst game of the season, if not in several.
Players Whose Performances I Liked
The training camp PTO signee had a very strong game. He screened Logan Thompson and was strong in the defensive zone.
“I thought he played really well. I thought he was good on the penalty kill. I thought he made good decisions with the puck,” said Sullivan. “He made a great screen on Jake’s goal … I thought he had a strong game. He played really well.”
O’Connor was nabbed for an offensive zone penalty, but I thought it was a cheap call. He was strong after the puck, hustling and around the net.
He, too, was strong on the forecheck and created a little havoc for the Golden Knights.