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Penguins Grades: Heart Not Enough; Not Over, but It Ain’t Good



Pittsburgh Penguins game, Alex Nedeljkovic, Tristan Jarry

This was the game that loomed the largest with dark clouds and ominous overtones. The Pittsburgh Penguins had just one win over the past two seasons against the Boston Bruins, and worse, defensively stingy Boston presents an awful matchup.

The Penguins were fighting uphill after allowing two goals in 14 seconds eight minutes into the second period. From there, it was a game of catchup they never won in a 6-4 loss to the Boston Bruins at PPG Paints Arena.

And yes, the loss had disheartening playoff implications.

The Penguins were energetic and aggressive, but the cracks in their game surfaced by the middle of the second period. Alex Nedeljkovic made his career-high 11th straight start but was shaky. He allowed three goals, including at least one, if not two, that he’d like a do-over.

However, not long after Tristan Jarry spelled Nedeljkovic, he and Karlsson had a miscommunication on the Penguins’ power play. Jarry turned the puck over, leading to Brad Marchand’s shorthanded goal.

It was that kind of day.

And yet the Penguins, as they’ve done for weeks, valiantly fought both their inner demons and the opponent. What they lack in defensive adherence or game awareness, they again made (almost) balanced with raw determination.

The Penguins refused to go quietly, cutting the lead to 2-1 and 4-2 before the end of the second period, and then 4-3 with a raucous shorthanded goal by Drew O’Connor in the third.

But the Bruins are a pretty good team, and they’ve not been kind to the Penguins.

And the Penguins just aren’t a team that can pile up goals like they used to.

The Penguins’ wild and sometimes chaotic 10-game points streak crashed with a thud on the worst possible day. The Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings won, leapfrogging the Penguins by one point with two games to play. The New York Islanders lost in overtime, jumping four points ahead of the Penguins for third place.

The scenarios are not nearly as dire as the predictions and bloodletting on social media, but the scenarios are not in the Penguins’ favor.

Penguins Analysis

“We gave some easy offense to them. This one hurts,” said Drew O’Connor.

After battling and fighting for three weeks, the Penguins streak was bound to end, but one of the catalysts of the streak–Nedeljkovic–wasn’t at his best Saturday. It’s unfortunate, but that’s sports.

Boston has scorers and players committed to structure in a way that Penguins coach Mike Sullivan could only dream. David Pastrnak creates offense from nothing. Nedeljkovic seemed to have trouble with his shots from the opening drop.

And there is always a Boston defender in position.

Nedeljkovic’s rebound control put the defensemen in a bad spot. Good defensive teams can calm their goalie on a bad day, but the Penguins won’t be confused for one of those. However, Sullivan noted the change in the second period and the Penguins’ lack of getting anywhere near the puck on Zacha’s rebound goal, which made it 2-0.

It wasn’t fatigue that got Nedeljkovic.

“No, no, actually, I thought I felt fine today. I felt better than I did Thursday night … I don’t have an explanation for you guys,” said Nedeljkovic. “The first one, I had it. It was between my legs there, and I thought I had it. The second one was just in control rebound, and the third one just got beat from distance.

“So it’s … Yeah, I don’t … there’s no good explanation. There’s no … I don’t know, just wasn’t good enough.”

Side note: Alex Nedeljkovic facing the media despite getting pulled is big-time guts and stand-up accountability; an admirable gesture to take the heat.

Boston counterattacked. Two of their first three even-strength goals immediately followed the Penguins’ scoring chances, and the third was just 14 seconds after their first goal.

Effort and energy were not the Penguins’ problems. Especially in the first period, the Penguins played with vigor and structure, but the Bruins held form.

Tactically, the Penguins were able to create breakouts and speed through the neutral zone. They found traction on the rush, but getting that second opportunity was elusive. So, too, where quality looks between the dots. They just couldn’t puncture the scoring zone often enough.

And Linus Ullmark is also a pretty good goalie.

Penguins Report Card

Team: B

They were not bad. Boston is good. And Boston is a terrible matchup for the Penguins–they do everything well that the Penguins struggle with. There is a reason they’ve maintained a standing near the top of the Eastern Conference despite losing their top two centers after last season’s Presidents’ Trophy.

“When you’re playing good teams, it’s hard to tilt the ice for 60 minutes. So you know they’re going to push back. In a couple of instances, we didn’t really make them work hard enough for the goals that they got,” Sullivan said. “One of them was a non-threatening shot from the perimeter. The rebound goes to the scoring area, and they get a free look. We got to get into people there. We’ve got numbers back. We have to have more awareness of getting to people in those circumstances and defending the scoring area. I just didn’t think we made them work as hard as we needed to for some of their offense.”

My .02: That’s roster construction more than anything else.

Drew O’Connor: He played his heart out, chasing every puck like it was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. His shortie was pure hustle.

“Incredible goal. You know, I thought (O’Connor) had a real inspiring effort tonight,” Sullivan said. “He played really hard, and that goal is an example of it.”

Michael Bunting: Two goals, including a power play goal. He was under Boston’s skin. Perhaps the Penguins could have played more to that agitation factor. Perhaps my eyes deceived me, but I could have sworn he was hit with a stick blade or two later in the first period when he skated past the Bruins’ bench. Her certainly turned as if he was, and he got a few chirps in, too.

P.O Joseph: He wasn’t perfect, but he was again good on the breakouts and kept it simple when he needed to. He was one of two Penguins players to be a plus (+1). His game down the stretch bodes well for his future.

Radim Zohorna: He played only 5:26, but I think he made the most of every single shift he was given. He created a couple of scoring chances, was on the puck in the low zone, and battled. Don’t be surprised if he gets a few more minutes Monday.

Also, he played only 5:26 in part because the Penguins were behind, and in such cases, fourth lines don’t get much ice.

Middle of the Road

Kris Letang: The best and not so-good for Letang. There were multiple shifts when he generated offensive pressure by keeping the puck in the zone and attacking from the blue line. There were also a few passes to the wrong team and a couple of failed clears on the power play.

Erik Karlsson: A couple of empty-net goals ballooned his plus/minus to minus-4, but he did some really good things and some really bad things. I’m not nearly as down on his performance as others. I thought he worked the offensive zone well, and he was really pushing in the second and third periods. He carried the rush and went deep with the puck.

None of the goals were on him.

Performances to Not Like

The Middle Six Wingers: Reilly Smith, Valtteri Puustinen, Rickard Rakell. They didn’t do enough, plain and simple. The Penguins were desperate for more offense, but it came from the top line.

Jack St. Ivany/Ryan Shea: I don’t want to criticize the defensemen too harshly. There were several loose pucks both played tentatively–they dropped back instead of stepping into them–allowing Boston to gain possession and offense on the rush. This was a little setback.

But that’s what happens with young players.