It has unfortunately become a common occurrence for Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan to address the media after games to admit attributes which the Penguins lack. Last month, the Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford called his team “fragile.” With a record bubbling just over .500, the culmination of Penguins shortcomings has been as surprising as the onset has been quick.
The Penguins have not been able to string together more than two wins in a row since late October, and every step forward has been followed by a step backward. The Penguins have blown two-goal leads in each of the last three games. Against Los Angeles, Saturday, the Penguins blew a pair of two-goal leads.
It’s been an ongoing problem for the Penguins which becomes more severe and more stubborn as the hockey season gets later, the standings become more bunched, and the same negative issues continue to produce the same negative results.
“You know, our team of all teams I think we learn it the hard way,” said Mike Sullivan. “You know it’s something that we talk about almost daily with our guys. But at some point it has to become part of the fabric of our identity if we’re going to win more games more consistently.”
The Penguins have won five of their last 10 games. Their only consistency has been inconsistency. Ugly losses to Chicago, Colorado and most recently to Anaheim, Monday have checked the Penguins successes against competitive teams such as Winnipeg, the New York Islanders (twice), and the Boston Bruins.
“We lose momentum and so we’ve got to have a little bit more pushback and in those situations (when losing leads),” Sullivan said. The Penguins hallmark of Stanley Cup championships was limiting opponents momentum or grabbing it back. Their new found fragility has erased that characteristic.
The Penguins have blown leads, racked up penalty minutes, turned the puck over, and succumbed to opponents forechecks. The revolving causes of losing indicates a team unable to put it all together though turnovers and poor puck management have been common themes, even in the Penguins victories.
“It’s something that we talk about almost daily. You know it’s not always about trying to score or make a play,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes it’s about making sure you don’t feed your opponent’s transition game because you become high risk.”
Daily is correct. Sullivan said similar on Friday night, too.
“I thought we could have done a better job managing the puck,” he said after the 5-3 win over Boston, Friday. “I thought we turned the puck over five or six times at both blue lines.”
Team leaders like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Matt Cullen have also talked about the Penguins lapses and lessons which have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Cullen said similar things about the Penguins breakdowns after the Penguins loss last Wednesday in Chicago, in which they were tied 3-3 but lost 6-3.
“We know better that we’re going to find a way to bring our best,” said Cullen. “Even if you don’t have jump in your legs, you still can do things the right way.”
Especially the Penguins middle two lines centered by Evgeni Malkin and Derick Brassard have been singled out by Sullivan for criticism, though the criticism has been couched in explanation. Other times it’s been muted only to be visible on the stat sheet as Sullivan and coaches have cut ice time.
Malkin still has only one even strength goal since Oct. 30. Frequent linemate Phil Kessel has only three even strength tallies since Oct. 27. The pair can be a liability when not scoring. Brassard has recently seen his ice time decreased, including Saturday when he had the lowest 5v5 ice time of all Penguins forwards.
The team and coaches are saying the words, but actions speak louder.
“Well there needs to be a level of accountability, and you know ultimately that falls on me,” Sullivan conceded. The issue stated is the team needs to be more accountable for turnovers, for simple play such as getting the puck in deep, defensive zone coverage and sometimes old-fashioned hustle.
“And so you know sometimes the biggest hammer a coach has his ice time,” the coach warned. “You know we want our guys to take ownership for their own respective games and we want them to take ownership for the way this team is going to play.”
Sullivan’s final words Monday night were perhaps the most important, “We have to start heeding the lessons if we’re going to if we’re going to get more consistent results.”