CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. – While the snow was beginning to softly lay on the grassy areas Thursday evening around Western Pennsylvania, that thud you heard was the Pittsburgh Penguins landing hard into last place in the Eastern Conference.
Their 4-3 loss to Eastern Conference leader Tampa Bay left them at 7-7-3, their 17 points better only than Los Angeles. They are just 3-5-1 at home.
Even Ottawa, a team that has had all sorts of strife and one that hosts the Penguins Saturday, is doing better than the Penguins, who are 1-7-1 in their past nine games.
The Penguins a day after trading away strong penalty-killer Carl Hagelin, gave up all four Lightning goals while shorthanded. And general manager Jim Rutherford is … threatening, promising? … to make more moves if things don’t turn around. He’s most likely working on that as you read this.
Their scoring depth has dried up.
There is concern about the play of No. 1 goaltender Matt Murray, whose numbers are off again after a subpar 2017-18 season.
Oh, and team captain Sidney Crosby, the soul of the club, is expected to miss his second straight game Saturday, and probably one or two more at least, because of an upper-body injury.
That’s the net-half-empty version, or at least an abbreviated form of it.
The Penguins themselves are leaning more toward net-half-full.
You can start with winger Patric Hornqvist, who after Thursday’s game guaranteed the team will catch a spark in the game at Ottawa and feed off that to turn things around.
Other Penguins are at least slightly more subtle but still maintaining optimism.
Center Derick Brassard, who seems likely to return Saturday in Ottawa from a lower-body injury, described sitting out during the recent one-win stretch as tortuous – but only because he couldn’t help, not because he thought the team stunk.
“Guys battled hard,” he said Friday. “I think we’re close. We probably had, like, two bad games in that stretch.
“I think a little bit of adversity for this team is not going to be bad. I think we’re going to grow better as a team and have a stronger team for the rest of the team.”
Center Riley Sheahan has been one of the targets of dissatisfied fans, with his one goal and one assist. He has helped fill Brassard’s role and agrees with his belief that the Penguins will be stronger after this poor stretch.
“Obviously, you don’t want to be in this position, but I think if we can be rolling and get some confidence back, take what we learned from this rough patch, I think it will help us,” Sheahan said.
Coach Mike Sullivan gave the players a pep talk Friday and offered this vote of confidence afterward:
“When you go through struggles like this, it’s never easy,” Sullivan said. “As I’ve said all along, they’re a great group of people. They care. There’s a lot of ‘try’ in here. We’ve just got to work to find our way out of it. As I told them on the ice (Friday), the solutions are right in this room. We believe in this group. We have faith in this group.
“We’ve got to do some things better to get the results consistently. But we certainly believe we have what it takes, and it starts with our attitudes. We’ve got to make sure we control our attitudes and we control our swagger a little bit to get our respective game back.”
Defenseman Kris Letang insists the team’s morale is good. He also pointed to the Penguins’ five-on-five play against Tampa Bay – they would have won 1-0 without special teams goals – as a reason to be optimistic.
“You just come to the rink, try to work on little details that you think you’re lacking, and you just keep a good attitude and things are going to work out,” Letang said. “We went out there (Friday), and guys had legs and they were going. The attitude was positive.
“It could be miserable, but I think we played the right way last game. We all know it’s because of all the penalties we took we didn’t get the result. But I think we played well as a group.”
With seven games in 12 days beginning Saturday, it would serve the Penguins will if the confidence they convey off the ice translates directly to better results.
“You just have to have a short memory, forget about the bad things and try to build off the good things. Just stick together as a group, have the confidence that we’ll get out of this,” Sheahan said.
“Obviously, it’s been a hard stretch. Trying to keep positive, enjoy practice, enjoy being (at the rink) because at the end of the day we’re lucky to be playing this game and to be living the lives we live. Bigger picture, I think when we can battle out of this, it might help us a bit.”
And that is about as net-half-full as it gets.