From the mouth of Lars Eller inside the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room came a genuine and blunt answer regarding the Penguins’ biggest problem. At times this season, the team has looked like one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and sometimes a disinterested going through the motions.
Eller didn’t level criticism as much as take the first step to solving a problem: acknowledgment.
The Penguins have put forth too many embarrassing losses, and there have been some real doozies this season. Their biggest problem is that too many times, it has looked like they just don’t care.
How can they be more consistent?
“It’s just a mental challenge of setting yourself up to have your compete level at the highest,” said Eller. “And, when you’re emotionally involved, and your compete level is there, usually you have better execution and better luck because you’re winning races and winning more battles, and all those things lead to more chances. The Xs and Os and systems. There’s no questions about that.”
From mid-December through mid-January, the Penguins were putting themselves together, stacking wins, and looking better as the soft deadline of the All-Star break loomed. President of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas used his early December press conference to clear up how most people perceived his comments on a team-hosted radio show the week prior. Dubas clarified that he hoped to know by the All-Star break which direction his team was headed.
The Penguins responded with points and wins, though not power-play goals, clawing their way back into the Eastern Conference playoff race. With a great opportunity to finish the break strong and a little R&R before the bye-week, the Penguins spent three days in Las Vegas and two days in Arizona.
Before leaving for the desert, they had a strong pulse.
With a chance to put themselves in a playoff position, they instead suffered two more humbling losses to the Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes, respectively.
After the desert, that heart monitor was making one long beep.
Rust didn’t argue about what the team needed to do in the second segment of the season.
“It’s just everybody setting themselves up. Look at themselves in the mirror and be ready no matter who you’re playing,” said Rust. “I think the division is pretty open, and we have everything in our own hands.”
The trip was a pie in the face of their recent gains, the sour taste so great that it wiped out the goodwill built for weeks. However, all was not lost.
They fought back to earn a point against the Florida Panthers, and, with clearly drained legs, they rallied for an overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens in the final game for the break.
Of course, never has there been an undefeated NHL team. Every hockey team loses, and every team has a couple of stinkers along the way in which their bodies are present, but little else shows up.
But it happens to the Penguins more than most.
“Everybody’s pound competitor guy in here. I think everybody wants to bring it every time. But I think. It’s a fine line between being at your best and maybe being a step below. And I think, maybe it takes a little bit more mental preparation, a little bit more on certain days, and some days it’s coming easier, and then other days you kind of got to find it.”
Now, at the risk of putting words in any player’s mouth, when someone earnestly says the team needs to play with emotion and be emotionally engaged, the obvious inference is sometimes they are not.
Such is visually obvious, too.
A challenge for Dubas is the Penguins roster makeup. It’s not that the players are physically old, which they are, but perhaps a few spirits are getting old, too. The Penguins are no longer an emotional team, and they seem to lack emotional leaders.
Players won’t admit that, but nor does the question need to be asked because the answer is obvious.
It’s just easier for the Pittsburgh Penguins to be flat.
“I think it’s hard for any one of us to be at our best in the absence of emotion,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think that’s what makes sports what it is. And my experience of being around it is when players or teams are invested emotionally, then that’s usually when you have an opportunity to capture their best.”
Capturing enough emotion might be a challenge for the Penguins’ locker room, just as adding some might be the challenge for Dubas.