What in the world is going on with the Pittsburgh Penguins? The team with Stanley Cup aspirations, generational talents, a Norris Trophy-worthy defenseman, and scoring depth is now just three points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes for the final playoff spot.
Yes, they’re missing Evgeni Malkin, but that shouldn’t preclude effort. They’ve been missing Justin Schultz for so long that getting him back will be like a blockbuster trade. Both players will make the Penguins better.
But talent isn’t what ails the Penguins.
Most of the team was skated out of their own building by that same Carolina team Tuesday night. If not for Sidney Crosby and his dominant 22 minutes of ice time, the Penguins would have been even more embarrassed than the 4-0 score. The Penguins followed that stinker performance with a half-hearted go Thursday night against the Florida Panthers, who are out of the playoff picture. In fairness, the addition of Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan has energized Florida.
In the overtime loss, the Penguins sang familiar refrains last night.
They failed to score on a 5-on-3 to begin the second period, but one reason given by head coach Mike Sullivan should sound warning bells.
“You get almost one minute of 5-on-3 time, you expect to score. It starts off the faceoff. There was a 50-50 puck and we didn’t compete hard enough on it,” Sullivan said.
More lack of effort when it was needed. I dare not tell you the beloved right winger to whom Sullivan was referring. That right winger has only two shots in the past three games.
“They were able to get out of their zone a little easier than we’d like. We’d like to put a little more pressure on them and hold on to pucks,” said Sidney Crosby.
Hanging onto pucks. We’ve heard that refrain, too haven’t we? And yet the Penguins are plagued by one-and-done offensive sequences.
The Penguins have just three wins and a loser point in their last 10 games. And this was supposed to begin crunch time. Wednesday, Pittsburgh Hockey Now asked head coach Mike Sullivan if there is a direct inference–regarding the repeated talk of “buy-in” and needing “20 guys invested”–that some players are not invested.
“Look, I’m not going to point fingers,” Sullivan shot back. “It takes the whole group day in and day out to have success. And everybody has to buy into how we’re trying to play the game and the details associated with that.”
The Penguins did play well in the second period and for good stretches of the third. But they failed to do enough. One even strength goal against Florida and a lack of effort on the power play is a sure fire loss. Though the Penguins did earn a point.
“It’s a big point. That’s what I told the guys afterward. It’s a big point,” Sullivan said.
That point put the Penguins three points, instead of just two ahead of Carolina. Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith probably deserves a great deal of credit for that point, too. He stopped 39 shots and far too many of those were good scoring chances. Florida had 56 percent of the scoring chances, Thursday night.
Is this what the Penguins have become; valuing a loser point against a team which is nine points out of the playoffs? The Penguins have too many passengers to play the hard, low style which Sullivan wants. And when they get fully healthy, the coaches would do well to remember which players exerted effort and which have just one or two shots over the past three games.
The additions of Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann may prove to be good pickups but not if they’re surrounded by an effort which has been mailed in.
Hope isn’t a strategy.