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Penguins Grades: Letang Meltdown, Late Collapse Rocks Team



Pittsburgh Penguins, Kris Letang

CALGARY, Alberta — The Pittsburgh Penguins got a pair of bottom-six goals. They scored a power-play goal in the second period and led 3-1 with 10 minutes remaining.

Yet the Penguins remain the most self-destructive team in the NHL. Calgary scored two goals 32 seconds apart in the middle of the third period and another in the final minute of the game for a 4-3 win at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Saturday.

The room was eerily silent as the few Pittsburgh reporters, including Pittsburgh Hockey Now, entered.

The loss clearly landed hard. Many sat disconsolate. Lars Eller remained in the room long after speaking to reporters. Just sitting with his head in his hands, trying to contemplate how the Penguins blew another game that should have been a win, and how few chances this team has left.

The Penguins absolutely unraveled in the third period. Nazem Kadri undressed Kris Letang just inside the defensive zone en route to the net for the Flames’ second goal and first of two tallies in 32 seconds. Rickard Rakell didn’t keep track of Blake Coleman, who let rip a well-placed one-timer for the second marker.

Letang was also the primary culprit on the Flames’ first goal. He stepped forward for a loose puck that wasn’t available. Sharangovich streaked past him for an unabated crack at Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry.

By the end, the Penguins had blown a pair of two-goal leads before Sharangovich scored his second goal of the game on what was essentially a three-on-one break after another Letang gaffe.

The Calgary night belonged to Miikka Kiprusoff, whose jersey was retired in a lengthy ceremony before the game. It was certainly not Letang’s.

“It started with me,” said Letang. “(I made) a mistake on a one-on-one. I should not let that happen, and that gave them momentum.”

The Penguins needed to win to maintain control of their playoff fate. The Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders, and Tampa Bay Lightning won on Saturday. One week until the NHL trade deadline, and the Penguins have lost at least two of the four games on the road trip and two in a row.

Sullivan called a timeout after Calgary’s third goal. It merely delayed the collapse.

If Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas decides to pull the plug before the Penguins arrive back in Pittsburgh following this trip, there aren’t many who would argue. A loss to the vaunted Oilers might just be the final nail in this team’s coffin.

Penguins Analysis

“We just beat ourselves. We just beat ourselves,” coach Mike Sullivan repeated. “You know, in a number of different ways, we had complete control. We game played a really good game up until that point. And we just made some egregious mistakes. It’s hard to recover from.”

The first period was undoubtedly one of the Penguins’ best in recent memory. Not only did they outshoot Calgary 14-3, but the shots were quality, unlike much of the loss to the Seattle Kraken. The Penguins’ breakouts were crisp. Aggressive with speed. Zone entries were strong. The forecheck created numerous turnovers. And most importantly, they led 2-0.

They even scored a power play goal in the first period. Such occasions should be marked.

The second period was softer. Calgary wasn’t going to be that dormant for that long. And the Penguins couldn’t be that good for that long.

The Flames evened the game in the second period, then unwrapped their presents like Christmas morning in the third.

“We gave them some chances. They were opportunistic with it,” said a crestfallen Drew O’Connor. “We let them back in it. That can’t happen with a two-goal lead. We have to close out games.”

The Penguins got sloppy in the second period. The teams traded possession and chances in the second period, but the Penguins’ mistakes gifted Calgary some fantastic chances. Defenseman Noah Hanifin was unabated to the net during a Penguins offensive zone over-commit and line change.

The Penguins reclaimed their stride in the third period. They were fast but also played with intent. The aimless perimeter play or lunging stick defense was nary to be found. They were on pucks and played with some grit.

And then they fell to pieces.

“I think we just gave many opportunities that they didn’t really earn,” said O’Connor. “We just kind of gave (chances) to them, and they made the most of it. And you can’t do that late in the third.”

And this is why the Penguins can’t have nice things.

Penguins Report Card

Team: F

Perhaps in the daylight, with time to reflect, I would grade them for the 50 minutes that they played well. But that catastrophic result, when it mattered so greatly, tells you about this team. They’ve been missing something since the start. It’s been obvious in gut-punch losses, the no-show falters, and even in some of the wins.

They deserved to sit in silence and contemplate their future. They earned every bit of that disappointment.

Rakell-Crosby-O’Connor: B+

They were the driving force. The line seemingly controlled the puck and created scoring chances on every shift. Obviously, they didn’t, but they did often. The Calgary media were buzzing about Crosby and the power he’s still playing with. Rakell is findinghis groove. That late second-period dangle and toe drag for a good rip at Jacob Markstrom was smooth. O’Connor provides a spark on that line. He is on every puck.

Smith-Malkin-Puustinen: B+

Valtteri Puustinen’s blind backhand pass put Letang in a split-decision moment earlier in the second period. Letang bit on the loose puck, allowing Yegor Sherangovich a clean run at Jarry. However, Smith continued his improved play. He could have scored a couple of times; a first-period tip in the crease and a second-period wrister from the slot clanged the crossbar. Puustinen is becoming quite the waterbug.

Jonathan Gruden: A

Not just because he scored his first NHL goal in the first period but also because he played his best NHL game. He had some real hop. He darted into the zone after that loose puck as if he launched from a slingshot.

P.O Joseph: A

I’ve been forgetting to grade him, but I typically remark on his play. He’s been quite solid, using his feet to hold the offensive blue line, and involving himself in the offensive zone play. And he’s defending well with tight gaps.

If you’re curious, Joseph and Letang often yell at each other in French. Playing with his mentor has been the elixir to what ailed Joseph this season. Joseph probably sat silently Saturday, watching his mentor have an old-school meltdown game.

Tristan Jarry: B-

He was solid. None of those goals were on him. I suppose he could have made one more save, but that collapse wasn’t on the goalie.