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Penguins Grades: Inside Another Wasted Chance and Blown Lead



Pittsburgh Penguins, Kris Letang beaten by Kirill Marchenko

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A friendly scoreboard with results across the league inviting the Penguins back into the playoff race, the Pittsburgh Penguins claimed a two-goal third period lead then tossed it away like hot garbage.

Just nine seconds after the Penguins claimed a 3-1 lead with only 11:01 to play, the Columbus Blue Jackets scored. And pressured. And scored again. Eventually, Columbus rallied to beat the Penguins 4-3 in a shootout at Nationwide Arena.

The Penguins have points in four straight games, but it should have been the fourth straight win instead of posting a 2-0-2 record. Twice in the last four games, the Penguins have upchucked a multi-goal third period lead. Those losses in extra play, first to the Colorado Avalanche in OT on Sunday, then to Columbus in the shootout, bookended the Penguins’ week with a clarifying insight into the team that’s impossible to ignore.

Dropkicking a third period lead seemingly with malice for success happens a couple or few times per season to good teams. It happens with regularity for the Penguins. And they absolutely wasted a beautiful chance to reinsert themselves into the playoff chase.

One point was OK, but again, squandering a multi-goal third-period lead was unacceptable.

“We need to defend harder,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “That’s what we can learn.”

It was yet another soft start and a softer ending for the Penguins. Despite a window to re-enter the fight for a playoff spot, the Penguins were flatter than a Sunday morning at nearby Ohio State after a loss to Michigan.

The collapse at the end merely underscored the debilitating deficiencies which defy explanation.

Speaking in hushed tones, defenseman Marcus Petterson tried to explain.

“We’ve got to do a better job of staying aggressive but playing smart at the same time. I think too many times this year when we gave up leads, we’re kind of giving momentum away and just allowing them to play with the puck,” said Pettersson. “They’re going to get looks. This league’s too good to just give the puck away and let teams come at you. So, (we need to) stay aggressive, but staying smart is something we have to do a way better job of.” 

Ohio native Alex Nedeljkovic was the difference between a multi-goal deficit and only trailing 1-0 after the first period.

Nedeljkovic was a running storyline throughout the game. The Penguins goalie, who made his fourth straight start and fifth straight appearance, made a litany of important stops, including a glove save against Johnny Gaudreau on a two-on-one.

Penguins Analysis

However, the Penguins began to generate a few offensive chances in the second half of the first period, though they did it through some unconventional means. The Penguins flew the zone on several occasions. Bryan Rust, Sidney Crosby, and Reilly Smith had contested breakaways after bolting the defensive zone behind the Columbus defensemen.

It was about taking advantage of the activating Columbus defensemen. However, the Penguins didn’t convert, and it was for naught when Columbus adjusted.

What the Penguins lacked — again — was net front traffic. They lacked second chances and chaos and momentum.

The Penguins could have trailed by several goals at any point but instead hit the second intermission with a 2-1 lead.

That’s right. Despite generally failing to put forth a quality game in multiple phases, Eller and Crosby lifted the Penguins to a lead. At 13:29 of the second period, Drew O’Connor one-timed a pass from Bryan Rust. However, it was Eller who chased down a cleared puck into the Blue Jackets’ zone and held it one against four, setting up the Penguins’ offensive zone possession.

With 65 seconds remaining in the second period, Columbus swarmed the Penguins zone but failed to get a good shot on goal. In the Penguins transition, Crosby froze everyone. As Columbus goalie Elvis Merzlikins and seemingly every Columbus player focused on Crosby, he slipped a pass across the slot to a wide-open Rust, who snapped the pass into the yawning cage.

Rickard Rakell crashed the net and backhanded the puck past Merzlinkins for a 3-1 lead.

Surely, this time, the team would get hot. Surely, this would be the step forward they’ve waited months for. Absolutely, this time, right?


Penguins Report Card

Team: F

Taking too many penalties, an abysmal power play, and allowing odd-man rushes. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

The Penguins again showed up in the third period. Then they vanished. Unacceptable against a terrible team.

Kris Letang: Ouch

The Penguins defenseman has seen better days. And the bottom dropped out. Letang was not only on the hook for the shorthanded goal in the first, but he was undressed in the first period by Kirill Marchenko and was visibly not on his game.

 “I don’t think he’s done his best, obviously,” said Sullivan. “He’s an important player for us. And he just plays in so many critical minutes. So, obviously, when he’s at his best, he’s a pretty impactful player.”

Marchenko undressed him again in the third period, this time for the game-turning goal, just nine seconds after the Penguins claimed a 3-1 lead. A No. 1 defenseman can’t get roasted as many times as he did Saturday.

Alex Nedeljkovic: A

The Penguins have back-to-back games coming up against the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers, so Jarry will most likely play one of those games, but we’ll bet on seeing Nedeljkovic against the Capitals on April 4.

Barring a meltdown in his next game, we’re betting on it. He was darned good behind a team that clearly was not.

Drew O’Connor: B+

O’Connor is playing with energy and a nose for the puck. He has goals in three straight games and is a worthy addition to the Crosby line, though he could get to the net more.


There were plenty of other performances to pan, downgrade, and hammer. It seemed few parts of the Penguins lineup were cohesive.

Lars Eller played well.

The fourth line did not. Sam Poulin looked out of his element and was quickly riding pine. Jack St. Ivany and John Ludvig had good moments but were also burned for the tying goal with the help of terrible support from the forwards.

A better team would have embarrassed the Penguins.