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Penguins Report Card: Malkin Rises, but Pens’ Ship is Sinking Fast



Pittsburgh Penguins game analysis, Bryan Rust

A power play terrified to shoot and gives up a breakaway goal at its conclusion. A team that can’t muster the fear or urgency to win games on home ice with their season on the line. Last season, it took until Game 81 for the Pittsburgh Penguins to be eliminated from playoff contention. The impatient Penguins are hastening their fate this season and, for too much of the first 30 minutes Tuesday, looked ready to accept the same destiny.

They trailed 3-1 in the second and 4-2 midway through the third period before a desperate comeback forced overtime. However, they still lost ground in the playoff race with a 5-4 overtime loss to the New York Islanders at PPG Paints Arena.

Don’t dig a hole, and you won’t have to climb out of it. That’s not exactly Confucian philosophy, but it holds.

They have one win in their last six games.

In the third period, a funny thing happened. The Penguins began to look like the team they could be. Evgeni Malkin created loose pucks and a few more scoring chances with a dogged forecheck. Malkin and winger Drew O’Connor were spirited in the third period.

So, too were Valtteri Puustinen and Lars Eller.

The Penguins scored three times in the final 23 minutes to force overtime. But it wasn’t enough. Like this season we are watching unravel, the Penguins weren’t good enough. They’re good for fits and spurts and moments and short runs but not good enough overall.

The results speak loudly. They earned a point when they needed two. They gave the Islanders life and two points when the Islanders were ready to quit after a dispiriting loss to the New York Rangers in the Stadium Series Game on Sunday.

“We went down a couple of goals, but I think our response was great,” said a dejected Marcus Pettersson. “It was a big point for us. I mean, for sure, disappointing, we could have (come out) on top.”

Sure, the Penguins could still go on a tear. Sure, they could make the playoffs. But if a team can’t turn up the dial when it matters now, there seems little hope they figure it out with the current cast of characters and roles.


The ship is sinking, and there aren’t enough players bailing water.

How does a coach fix a power play full of talented and worthy participants that passes up shot…after shot…after shot?

The Islanders’ goals were a litany of bad decisions and bad plays.

Brock Nelson skated past Erik Karlsson and danced around Marcus Pettersson for the first Islanders goal. Matthew Barzal lept from the penalty box for a breakaway goal as the Penguins meekly watched the end of their power play. And Simon Holmstrom poked a loose puck past goalie Alex Nedeljkovic as the goalie thought Karlsson would play it but didn’t. Defenseman Ryan Graves tried to outskate forecheckers but couldn’t, his giveaway leading to Mike Reilly’s goal at 10:42 of the third period.

Four horrible goals to give up, not by the goalie but by lackadaisical or bad plays. You can use a lot of adjectives. Careless or irresponsible are the family-friendly versions.

On Tuesday, the careless equaled the good. The sloppy equaled the desperate, and the goalie whiffed on an overtime shot.

That’s how it works when you only play an honest 20 minutes.

Penguins Analysis

The Penguins are struggling to put together three defense pairings. They activated their adult defensemen Tuesday, but mistakes in the blue line were a big difference.

Marcus Pettersson sneaked to the back door twice, scoring once and putting Islanders captain Anders Lee in a bad spot to deflect a hard pass into the net on the other. We’ll call it two goals but only credit for one.

Kris Letang and Erik Karlsson were active and forward from the red line, and the team covered them well. The Islanders did not get odd-man rushes.

No, the Islanders got goals from errors and what the team called bad luck.

“I don’t know what to say. Just not … Not not our best game,” said Eller with long pauses. “Through two periods there, our game … just … a little bit poor execution, a little bit bad luck and bounces. A little bit of both. All of a sudden, you’re down 3-1. When things aren’t going your way, you can’t quit on your teammates, and I don’t think anyone quit tonight.”

No, the team didn’t quit, but they put themselves in that situation.

Coach Mike Sullivan took the hits for his team, spinning to the positive on most issues. He credited the team’s “Inspired effort,” and he said the power play had a handful of “high-quality chances.”

I saw a lot of passing. More passing. Passed-up shots. Passive standing. And more passes. That’s not on the coach because I’m quite sure they didn’t have a meeting to avoid shots. The team had five shots on goal in three opportunities.

In the third period, the Penguins really got to the game they needed to play for 60 minutes. They pressured the Islanders with a desperate forecheck that often created loose pucks and offensive zone pressure. The Malkin line with Matthew Phillips and Drew O’Connor was the Penguins’ best. Eller’s line with Valtteri Puustinen and Reilly Smith also got the puck in the offensive zone and pushed hard around the net.

It’s enough to make anyone throw up their hands in exasperation that occurs so inconsistently.

Penguins Report Card

Team: B-

Under the circumstances, perhaps the grade should be much lower. That was the game the Penguins needed, and they knew they needed it badly. Yet they put forth barely a passing effort until the third period.

The mistakes. The defense continues to be patchwork. Tuesday, goalie Alex Nedeljkovic wasn’t bad–he wasn’t great–and he took the heat for the loss, but he shouldn’t have.

“We deserved two points. I sh-t the bed,” he said after the game.

Evgeni Malkin: A

Malkin had some hop. It was the game he had needed to play for weeks. With the season on the line, the Penguins star stepped forward, especially in the third period.

Matthew Phillips: A

I really liked his game. He had energy from the opening faceoff. He zipped around defenseman Mike Reilly in the first period and nearly set up Kris Letang for a sure goal, but Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin deflected the pass. Phillips was part of the Malkin line surge. He may stick if he can keep up this level of play.

Drew O’Connor: A

I really liked O’Connor’s game. He had a few glorious chances. He took the puck to the net, he made plays in the offensive zone, and he showed some power-forward game. I’m sure the coaches will give him a tap and say, “More of that.”

Valtteri Puustinen: A

He’s been invisible for a long time, but he was front and center in the Penguins’ comeback, scoring the third goal with a poke near the net. He was on the forecheck and clearly brought some energy to the team. Again–more of that.

He had a goal and four shots on goal.

Power Play: D

“I thought they had they had some really good looks. We didn’t score. You know, they made some plays. We had a significant amount of offensive zone time,” Sullivan said. “You know, I didn’t think we got a whole lot of pot luck — and Barzal comes out of the penalty box at the same time the puck goes around the wall. That’s a tough one. I thought some of the plays that were made — we had a couple of backdoor plays. Rusty had one on the backdoor. Those types of looks are high-quality looks. I thought they got some — they got a handful of those tonight. And I think that’s something to build on.”

In the words of Gary Cole’s Bill Lumbergh, I’m going to have to sort of disagree with you there.

The passive nature of the man advantage didn’t create momentum, the chances were sparse, and the passed-up shots against the league’s worst penalty kill were inexplicable. It’s not on Sullivan that Letang, Karlsson, Crosby, Malkin, et al, didn’t let it fly, but it was another killer effort in a tight game.

Ryan Graves: C-

I circled three dangerous mistakes. One led to a goal. Two more led to high-danger chances.

Erik Karlsson: C+

There were flashes of THE Erik Karlsson Tuesday. I liked his game. He had four shots on goal. I can’t give anything higher because of the Simon Holmstrom goal and the Brock Nelson goal.

P.O Joseph: B?

The grades differ based on expectations. Joseph held the fort and allowed Letang to do what Letang does well. Joseph had a couple of turnovers, which is not good, but he moved the puck forward and defended well.

If Joseph can provide that level of play, the Penguins might be able to cobble together a blue line, but I’ve written that a few times this season about others, too.