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Penguins Grades: Soul-Crushing Loss to Avs Raises More Questions



Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin

DENVER — Not even a four-goal lead could bring the Pittsburgh Penguins good vibes or a moment of hope. A 4-0 lead became a 5-4 overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche at Ball Arena Sunday.

The cascading effects will be felt longer than the next few hours and should raise even more questions about the future of the club. It was akin to a fighter getting to his feet and then being hit with a roll of quarters. The Penguins felt good about themselves for 45 minutes, which only made the resulting thud hurt worse.

This is one of those losses that exposes all that is wrong, showing its participants just how steep the mountain ahead will be and probably making a few question if the team can possibly come back from it.

The sour looks blew past disappointment into disbelief, not in the situation, but in themselves. Losing hurts, but a loss like that is an absolute confidence crusher on both an individual and team level.

“I don’t care much about how the first half went. It was a great first half. We had a great 36 minutes there,” said goalie Alex Nedeljkovic before shaking his head and recounting a couple of bad bounces. “…I felt like they had four chances and scored four goals.”

Read More: Rocky Mountain Low: Avalanche of Late Goals Buries Penguins 5-4 in OT.

It started so well. For a moment, the sun shined through the coming snowstorm in the Rockies. For a moment, Sidney Crosby flexed against his Cole Harbour friend Nathan MacKinnon, and the Penguins reminded themselves and a national TV audience of what they used to be.

And then reminded everyone, most notably themselves, what they are.

It would have been nice to enter the Penguins’ locker room under good circumstances; we haven’t had many of those moments in a while. Occasionally, it’s nice to joke or smile, ask questions about P.O Joseph getting his first goal of the season, Puljujarvi showing a fire that he has not previously shown, or Sidney Crosby’s monster four-point (1-3-4) day. It would have been nice to have a reprieve, if only for one day, from the soulless march toward the end of the regular season as if the Penguins are a bottom-feeding also-ran.

Perhaps they are. Their record, which is below .500, says they are. So, too does the preponderance of their performances this season.

Instead, we looked at more crestfallen faces, heard large sighs of sullen frustration, and could see the pain of hope given away. Coach Mike Sullivan spoke for less than 40 seconds Sunday. He managed to zip through three questions in less time than he typically answers one, though his answer to the obvious question was an obvious deflection.

“We competed hard. You know, that’s one of the most explosive offenses in the league that we played against. We knew they were going to push back. We competed hard,” was all Sullivan said in response to squandering a four-goal lead.

Colorado is one of the best in the league. Nathan MacKinnon was scoreless with a minus-2 ranking midway through the second period but finished with three points (1-2-3) and a plus-1 rating.

Penguins Analysis

The Pittsburgh Penguins needed a moment to find their footing Sunday. The first few minutes were a loose exchange of scoring chances and a terrible penalty by Jesse Puljujarvi, but for the remainder of the next 13 minutes or so, they were all Penguins’ chances. Different line combinations, including Sidney Crosby with Valtteri Puusinten and Reilly Smith, and a particularly inspired fourth line laid siege to the Colorado zone.

It was one of, if not the, most impressive periods of the Penguins’ season.

In fact, Puljujarvi showed a desperate burst as he bolted from the penalty box on his toes with a powerful stride, leading the Penguins rush, ultimately finishing a rebound chance from a whistling Sidney Crosby backhand and Reilly Smith tip.

That’s one way to make up for a bad penalty. However, by the third period, Puljujarvi had vanished.

The Penguins continued to press throughout the first period, running up a 16-4 shot advantage and a 2-0 lead and the second period was more balanced, as Colorado pushed back, but it was the Penguins who scored a pair, racing to what should have been an insurmountable 4-0 lead.

Crosby was out of his skates, notching four points, including a ridiculous tip near the net from a seemingly impossible angle. If only Penguins fans hadn’t seen the same wizardry a dozen times before, it would make every highlight reel.

However, good teams push back, and soft teams let good teams back in the game.

The Penguins completely buckled.

Immediately after the Penguins staked a four-goal lead, no one bodied up Zach Parise at the Penguins net. In fact, no one covered anyone, and former Flyers defenseman Sean Walker had free ice at the top of the circles to let it rip past goalie Alex Nedeljkovic.

The Penguins immediately gave up a breakaway to MacKinnon; only an uncalled Joseph slash or hook on MacKinnon’s hands thwarted the attempt. But the Penguins did give up the second goal with more disheveled d-zone coverage as Yakov Trenin was free to deflect Brandon Duhaime’s wide-open from the slot.

It was the Crosby line on the ice for the two goals, though neither of the top two defensive pairs did much to help. Instead of mistakenly leaving one player open, the Penguins decided to leave them all open to predictable results.

The Avalanche pressed even harder at the start of the third period, showing why they’re in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy. MacKinnon dazzled, then fed a wide-open Jonathan Drouin in the right circle for a clean one-timer.

What should have been game over became only a one-goal lead. The Penguins never steadied themselves, giving up the tying goal before Drouin blew past Kris Letang for the breakaway winner in the first minute of overtime.

What the Penguins did well for a while: They skated with the puck. It wasn’t a hot potato, and they neatly worked the puck to the weak side, where the Avalanche gave them space for clean zone entries. Bryan Rust took it all the way to the net, scoring the Penguins’ second goal.

The Penguins swarmed the Avalanche net. They got multiple bodies there, got on pucks behind the net, and in the dirty zones. The defensemen shortened the top of the zone, stepping forward to create more pressure.

By keeping the puck, that meant Colorado didn’t have it — an obvious but important point. Once Colorado got the puck, and got momentum, the Penguins were overwhelmed.

“We played good enough to win that game. They’re a really good hockey team; to hold them to four shots in the first period. You’re up 4-0 with four (minutes) to play in the second period and not come away with two points. It’s pretty disappointing.”

Nedeljkovic was pulled for 10 minutes later in the second to be evaluated for a concussion. Tristan Jarry gave up the third goal early in the third period before Nedeljkovic returned.

Penguins Grades

Team: D

Goals in the first 30 count. But any team, no matter how terrible or out of the playoff race, should be able to hold a four-goal lead. FOUR?! So many good storylines: Joseph’s first goal of the season, Crosby’s four-point afternoon, Puljujarvi playing an inspired period, and the team looking good.

And then, the Penguins flushed their effort with defensive zone coverage that was at best disorganized and more appropriately labeled helpless. They lost coverage and failed to cover puck carriers and shooters. Just a jaw-dropping collapse.

Sidney Crosby, Top Line: B-

Crosby had four points, but his line was at the forefront of the chaos that spotted Colorado two goals in three minutes at the end of the end of second.

Four points should be enough. The defensemen on the ice weren’t any better.

Bunting-Malkin-Rakell: D

Evgeni Malkin appeared to play well for good stretches, but the line yielded a team-high 12 scoring chances, far more than the rest of the team combined. Up 4-0, one might think structure and defending would be paramount.

More Performances to Bag

The defense.

Kris Letang. Sure, he got walked on the OT winner, but he should have been the one to put a body or stick on Zach Parise on the first goal.

Erik Karlsson. Ouch. His failed clear led to the second goal. As Colorado pressed, Karlsson was on the wrong side of the scoring chances, even yielding a three-on-one when he was pressured off the puck at the red line in the third period. He was on the ice for the second, third, and fourth Colorado goals.

Even Marcus Pettersson was burned for both a penalty and near the net.