PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith was rightfully disappointed after his team squandered a 4-1 second-period lead and lost in overtime to the Buffalo Sabres, 5-4. The Penguins haven’t won a game since they shutout Arizona on Nov. 10. They haven’t beaten an Eastern Conference team since Oct. 18 and the Penguins confidence is sinking like a stone.
Players and head coach Mike Sullivan attempted to say the right things. Their words read well. They did some good things to build a 4-1 lead. But their soft voices, shaking heads and confused eyes spoke louder.
“On a couple of the goals that they scored, we make a couple of mistakes,” shrugged Sullivan. “And they end up in the back of the net. Just seems that’s the way it’s going right now.”
In overtime, Buffalo center Jack Eichel raced into the Penguins zone on a two-on-one break. Eichel’s (5) wrist shot dribbled over the goal line and the Penguins lost again. DeSmith simply shook his head in disbelief at the entire situation as he spoke to the media.
“It just kind of sneaked under my armpit, hit the back of my leg, I guess and trickled in. It was just one of those nights. They had two goals off d-men who were going wide.”
DeSmith, 27, the Penguins back up goalie has been pressed into service as the team acknowledges starting goaltender Matt Murray is struggling. DeSmith began the game with a 2.25 goals against average and a .930 save percentage. However, the Penguins abandonment of the defensive zone and failure to maintain their game dropped those lofty totals. His goals against average spiked to 2.54 and his save percentage dropped to .923.
“It’s just one of those streaks where stuff like that seems to be happening,” DeSmith conceded as he belied the team’s seeming expectation that good fortune is met with bad. A lack of confidence will bring that worry to the front, and self-fulfilling prophecies become the norm.
“We just have to battle through it, I guess. It sucks, obviously,” DeSmith concluded before he added, “I thought we did a lot of good things, tonight.”
The Penguins players and head coach Mike Sullivan repeated that phrase, “a lot of good things.”
However, teams mired in these stretches often do a lot of good things but good teams find a way to win the game. These Penguins have lost that benefit of the doubt. While they earned a point for their effort, they did not win. They allowed four straight goals and never really showed the strong fight or pushback expected of the mighty Penguins.
No, instead they went through the motions. The Penguins clearly expected bad things to happen. The capacity crowd at PPG, which largely stayed to the end sensed it, too. Desperate chants of “Let’s Go Pens” uncharacteristically echoed through PPG Paints Arena in the final minutes. Fans were not racing to their cars to avoid the extra five-minute wait to get through the Squirrel Hill Tunnels or off the Ft. Pitt Bridge.
Instead, they watched hero Evgeni Malkin, who dominated the first period become the villain with five turnovers. They watched numerous other players who enjoyed the fruits of Buffalo’s lax defense in the first couple periods stumble as Buffalo jumped the Penguins on the wall and in the neutral zone.
The turnovers the Penguins feasted on in the first period became their own in the second and third period.
“We have to make cleaner plays with the puck, help each other out and get open,” said Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson. “When you have a lead like that halfway through the game, you can’t go into ‘protect the lead mode,’ you have to stay after it.”
The Penguins didn’t stay after it. They handed it back to the Buffalo Sabres who took it away with hard pinches on the wall to keep the Penguins in the defensive zone.
The Penguins are currently in last place in the Eastern Conference and searching for a lifeline. Even newly acquired Tanner Pearson, who had his first point and then his first goal as a Penguin (and of the season) couldn’t sustain the energy of the first 30 minutes.
And that is how it’s going right now…as the hole they’re digging gets deeper.