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Penguins Grades: What is Happening to This Team??



Pittsburgh Penguins game, Tristan Jarry, Kris Letang

TAMPA, Fla — Kris Letang sat alone in his locker stall after an embarrassing 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday at Amalie Arena. As the bright lights of TV cameras shined on Sidney Crosby, then Evgeni Malkin, Letang put his hand to his chin, his head down in contemplation. It looked like pure melancholy.

There are questions. There are doubts, and they are growing. It doesn’t seem anyone has the answers.

The Penguins lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-1 Wednesday at Amalie Arena. Their lone goal came in the final minute, and its only purpose was to break Andrei Vasilevskiy’s shutout.

What in the hell is going on with the Pittsburgh Penguins?

They are now .500 at 11-11-3. They appear lost, flailing about as the figurative quicksand swallows what is left of their confidence, threatening to drag down their entire season.

“Obviously, when you don’t have success, your confidence isn’t at an all-time high,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “And these guys are human beings, but we’ve got to find a way to fight through it.”

Confidence seems long gone as a trio of bad performances culminated in a staggering no-show loss to Tampa Bay. In years past, Sullivan would talk about getting their swagger back.

There is no such talk this time. This team looks and sounds beaten. They don’t have answers as to why they struggled to score for the first quarter of the season despite being among the league leaders in scoring chances.

“Keep trying” lost its luster some time ago.

“We have to figure it out” has worn out its welcome.

Nor do they have answers as to why they haven’t scored a power-play goal in nearly a month. Not since Nov. 11 has the team lit the lamp on the man advantage. Just like their OT loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday, the Penguins’ power play has been reduced to an unsteady mass of jello, unable to muster zone entries, sustained time, or even basic pressure.

Evgeni Malkin said the team is nervous when they are on the power play. He rattled off a litany of things the man advantage isn’t doing well. The Penguins power play has failed 34 consecutive times over a 12-plus game stretch.

“(If we score on the power play) it’s a different game. (We) have like three, four, five power plays every night,” Malkin said. “You see, when we try power play, we don’t feel good. We lost the puck at the blue line. (We gave up) a two-on-one, and breakaways because we do not have confidence. Like, we’re nervous.”

It would be fair to rip the team to shreds. Many of you will.

It would be fair to question nearly every player. Many of you will.

With a .500 record, it’s becoming fair game to question a coach or coaches. Many of you loudly will.

There come a few points in every season when the challenge is great, and a team must respond. However, the Penguins rolled over and played dead Wednesday, which followed a pair of lackluster overtime losses to Philadelphia.

The loss was, and should be, embarrassing.

Neither Sidney Crosby nor Kris Letang pushed back on assertions the team was lifeless.

How in the world can that be? How can a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, or at least playoff expectations, be bubbling just above .500 and fail to exert their best effort in three straight games against division and conference rivals?

A structural analysis? No. We can’t tonight because the Penguins were stuck in a disconnected effort of individual performances,  ridiculous passing, and a third period push that more resembled pond hockey than their structured better angles.

Oh, long gone is that tight 1-2-2 that bedeviled talented teams like Anaheim, Colorado, and Vegas.

Monday in Philadelphia, Sullivan extolled the virtues of shooting the puck more. His eloquent explanation about shots breaking down defenses and creating opportunities did not reach the team.

The Penguins had four shots in the first period despite more than a dozen opportunities. They had zero shots for 17:29, and Crosby demured that they were trying to be too pretty or overpassing.

“I don’t think we’re necessarily trying to be too cute. If anything, maybe a little hesitant, we need to play on our toes a little bit more,” Crosby said. “Against a team like this, you don’t want to make a mistake. You don’t want to give them an odd-man rush because they’re dangerous. Sometimes you can be a little bit hesitant, and that’s the time they need.”

Again, four shots in the first period and too many looks declined.

Again, what the hell is going on with the Penguins?

We’ve reached the point at which the status quo cannot be fixed or tinkered with to achieve a better result. The car has not run out of gas but dropped an engine. The team is falling apart, not coming together.

The ever-worsening level of play, not this reporter, says that.

Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas might quickly become the only person who can provide a bucket to bail out this sinking ship.

Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card

Team: F

Was that the most disappointing loss of the season?

“No,” was Sullivan’s only answer.

We might agree, but that’s only because the Penguins have already played too many inexplicably bad games this season. They were awful. Disconnected. Disjointed. Nothing worked–not the new line combos with Reilly Smith on the top line, not Lars Eller moving to Evgeni Malkin’s wing in the second period.

Just…nothing is helping. In fact, with every change, it seems the Penguins drift further from the shoreline.

Power Play: F

It’s a horrible compliment, but at least they didn’t give up a breakaway chance.

Harkins-Carter-Nylander: A

The boys were put together in the third period. They helped jumpstart the Penguins offense with a couple of good shifts. They had three shots on their first go-round.

Reilly Smith: Hello? 

Smith has gone ice cold. He has just two assists in 15 games despite playing with Evgeni Malkin.

He didn’t mesh well with Sidney Crosby on Wednesday. Not even a little. He’s not on loose pucks or coming out of the corners with pucks. He’s not been dangerous.

Marcus Pettersson: A

If not for Pettersson, the game could have been out of hand earlier. His ability to break up the rush or scoring chances is a saving grace.