BUFFALO — It looked like a vintage Pittsburgh Penguins game and a meltdown from the bygone middle 2010s era.
A phantom penalty against Evgeni Malkin led to a third-period Buffalo Sabres power play and the Sabres’ first goal to cut the Penguins’ lead to 2-1. Replays were definitive that Buffalo defenseman Mattias Samuelsson fell when he tried to kick the puck.
But it’s hardly the first bad call in a hockey game.
And the Penguins still led 2-0 with 15 minutes remaining. That SHOULD be lights out.
“We gave them a little bit too much life, I think. And once they got that first one on a horrible call, we need to find a way and just stick with it,” said defenseman Erik Karlsson. “We got a little bit frustrated, I think, and just mismanaged our decisions out there at the time.
“Maybe (it changed our mindset). It shouldn’t. So there’s no excuse for that.”
The Penguins didn’t tighten up but instead complained more. They didn’t clamp down. They tried more cross-ice passes. They didn’t suffocate Buffalo. They chased a goal instead of responsibility.
After the Malkin penalty, the Penguins’ unraveling continued for the remainder of the period. They lost in regulation after more sloppy defensive zone coverage and mistakes by their star defensemen, Kris Letang and Erik Karlsson.
Neither earned a good grade on the report card. Karlsson was exceedingly soft in the defensive zone and a bit careless with the puck. Letang participated in the meltdown by trying to make pretty plays, leading to turnovers instead of goals.
Buffalo surged to a 3-2 regulation win, dropping the Penguins further in the Eastern Conference while delivering a gut punch.
Hockey bags slammed in the hallway. Shin guards were shoved into bags with disgust. Coach Mike Sullivan spoke with an exasperated tone and only a few-word answers. He wasn’t the only one.
Captain Sidney Crosby, who scored his 13th goal of the season in just the 19th game, wasn’t any more eloquent.
“They get a power play. (We get) a bad bounce, and then, you know, they find one around the net,” Crosby said. “We just couldn’t find a way to extend the lead. And they get a bounce on the second one.”
Pittsburgh Penguins Analysis
The game did not start well, and it looked like a one-sided track meet. Buffalo had three odd-man rushes or Penguins’ defensive zone blunders in the first few minutes.
Nor did the game end well.
Winger Drew O’Connor was trying really hard to make an impact. In fact, he was probably trying too hard, as evidenced by the first shift when he abdicated his high-forward duties to chase a puck battle below the goal line.
Buffalo is a transition team, and it was quickly a Buffalo four-on-two as O’Connor tried in vain to get back on defense.
The Penguins tightened the screws and worked off the extra mashed potatoes by midway through the first period. It’s funny how opportunities follow good decisions. The Penguins began to push the puck low in the offensive zone and push Buffalo to defend.
Jake Guentzel and Reilly Smith created a couple of turnovers. Guentzel did yeoman’s work to pursue and steal a Sabres breakout, setting up Crosby for a long-range one-timer for the only a first-period goal.
One sure sign of the Penguins’ engagement level is the backcheck. They can be one of the best teams in the league at the rear pressure. When the Penguins forced Buffalo to play 200 feet rather than 100, the game changed immediately.
But Mattias Samuelsson (son of the great Kjell Samuelsson) is really, really good. He dished a couple of clobbering hits and was active in the offensive zone.
Those hits began to change the game. Structurally, the Penguins were a bit sloppy, but once the physicality started, they sought retaliation. The Penguins chased retaliation. A workman-like but loose effort became a scattered and unnerved team that didn’t push back with hard play but tried to return hits.
The Penguins initially responded well to the physical, legal, and extra-legal hits but were soon a team without grounding.
Did the Penguins lose their cool by taking runs (which they did) and complaining to the officials (which they did a lot)?
“No,” was all Sullivan said.
Further, the Penguin’s penalty kill has been very good this season and was good on Friday, but he was caught in the meltdown. On the power play goal that set Buffalo in motion, Letang tried to make a pretty play instead of using the wall for a simple clear. The PK scrambled to get back into position.
Jeff Skinner was alone in the low slot, and the fuse was lit for the Penguins’ implosion.
The Penguins need points. They need to get into the playoff picture. Gone are the days of waiting until after Christmas. The league is too good–too much parity. Every loss, especially those in which they show up and have it in their hand, only hurts worse.
Make no mistake, the loss was more mental than physical. However, the Penguins’ injuries are exposing some players who did not earn good grades.
Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card
I’ll toss the meat to the Coliseum crowd. Bad grades first.
Drew O’Connor: No Bueno
The Penguins potential power forward was trying too hard to make an impact Friday. He chased the game. It wasn’t a lack of effort or caring, but a trying to do too much to earn his keep on the top line. He looked a bit lost at times.
Alex Nylander: No Dice
Perhaps his best shot to earn an NHL sweater is fading quickly. He was a non-factor. On the first Penguins power play, he had a couple of pokes near the net, but Ukko-Pekka Luukonnen easily gobbled up his soft five-hole taps.
Those little taps work in the AHL. He had time and space to do more than redirect the puck on the net or at least make a sharper redirect. He had five shots, but it isn’t working.
Erik Karlsson: Yikes
Karlsson’s game has not been to standard in the last two games. Turnovers and loose coverage near the net burned the Penguins’ top d-man. The tying goal was scored near his hip pocket (replays showed it was Karlsson who scored an own goal. Deflecting it into the net).
Karlsson was on the wrong side of advanced analytics; more scoring chances against and only a 40% expected goals for, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
Kris Letang: Turnovers
Letang was too generous with the puck. He’s been brilliant this season. Not Friday. He was part of the third-period meltdown. Letang’s punch on Peyton Krebs in the second period may earn smiles from Penguins fans, but if he were on the receiving end of it, Penguins fans would have been calling for supplemental discipline.
It showed the Penguins were losing their cool.
The good grades…
Jake Guentzel: A+
Guentzel was at the net, on the puck, stiff on the backcheck, and he produced puck possession. This might have been his best game of the season. He was a driving force.
Marcus Pettersson: A
Pettersson is becoming the Winston Wolfe of the Penguins’ blue line (Pulp Fiction reference). He’s a fixer. His long reach disrupted a few Grade A scoring chances by deflecting shots. He’s getting stronger and more confident in the defensive zone–no hesitation when he must spring into action facing more opposition than General Custer.
He’s been a real shutdown defenseman.
Power Plays: C+
“They were OK,” is what Sullivan conceded.
Granted, he was in no mood to speak.
The power play had some chances. They had some zone time, and they didn’t erase momentum. It’s unfair to really judge after one game, and it’s further unfair to judge until Sullivan and associate coach Todd Reirden get Bryan Rust back in the lineup.
Mike Sullivan/Fourth Line: ???
Center Noel Acciari played 8:25. Matt Nieto played only 8:16. And Jeff Carter played 6:33.
With a 2-0 lead and then a 2-1 lead, shouldn’t the fourth line get more ice time, not less? With Buffalo bringing physicality and trying to unnerve the Penguins’ stars, shouldn’t Acciari be out there?
With a game that’s becoming rough and tumble and a lead, that’s fourth-line real estate. Or it should be.
The Penguins fourth line has not been productive this season, but they haven’t been a defensive liability, either. If Sullivan doesn’t trust them, it’s time for the president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas to make personnel moves and fix the issue.