Brights Spots and Denial, What Penguins Thought About 1st 49 Games (+)
Believe it or not, the Pittsburgh Penguins are still in a playoff position. Despite a gaggle of losses that brought an unsettling feeling and cast their season in a harshly negative light leading to the NHL All-Star break, the Penguins are clinging to the second wild card spot ahead of the Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders, and Florida Panthers.
They also have a better winning percentage than the first wild card-holding Washington Capitals. All hope is not lost.
However, especially after the Jan. 28, 6-4 loss to the San Jose Sharks, more than a few Penguins fans were ready to find a nun to lead the procession of players down 5th Ave. while chanting “shame, shame.”
Much of the external negativity and angst has been self-imposed and deserved after mistake-filled and sloppy losses in games that mattered against Washington and San Jose.
Also, fans didn’t hold the procession near the arena primarily because every darn street in the area is under construction.
As it turns out, Buffalo isn’t going to win the next 32 games. Washington might be as broken or more than the Penguins, while the Islanders and Florida still substantial have ground to make up.
And at their core, the Penguins are a good team, even if they seemed intent on proving otherwise.
We know what you think (and what I think) of the figurative first half of the season, but what do the guys in the room think of their performances?
One unquestioned bright spot of the Penguins’ first 49-game segment was Marcus Pettersson. He shed the dispensible and subpar labels to become inarguably the Penguins’ most consistent defender, if not a legitimate top-four NHL defenseman.
“Maturely, I’m a completely different player. I still try to do the same things, so I don’t think I’ve changed the way I want to play the game over the years — just some smarter decisions out there,” Pettersson said. “And really, (I’m going) back to what got me to the position I’m in. I’m not the biggest, strongest guy, so I’m really using my hockey IQ out there — Growing up, that was my great strength, and kind of go back to that place a little bit more and not chase things out there.”
Pettersson is one of the few Penguins who can claim a solid first half without plunging moments or interruption.
Bryan Rust signed a new five-year contract shortly after the season’s ignominious end in seven games to the New York Rangers. It was his first big-money contract, but he’s not put up the same offensive numbers as the last couple of seasons.
Rust, 30, has only 30 points (11-19-30) and is a surprising minus-6 in 49 games.
He was quick to dismiss the contract has played a role in his struggles but admitted he’d grabbed the stick too tightly over a couple of points in the season.
“I’m pretty much like the team — Inconsistent at times,” he said. ” … I’m not sure (I can put my finger on it). I had a rough month of November. I think outside of that, it’s been pretty good. November was a really tough month. You know, I wasn’t very good, and I was trying to figure it out … I think it’s just one of those things. You just get back to skating, working hard, and you try to find open ice.”
The perenially upbeat P.O Joseph has been a work in progress. He’s played well enough to maintain a spot in the lineup but only occasionally flashed his top-end talent.
In 45 games, Joseph has 12 points (2-10-12). He’s been, at worst, OK, but also very good for stretches. For a player with so many tools in the toolbox, it’s been a learning process.
“I think it’s been a little bit of a rollercoaster from time to time, right? I think there are a lot of good things that I’m happy about, and I think my game is going in a good direction, and I’m learning quickly,” said Joseph. “If you tell me that we’re still in December or November, I’d believe you. But here we are — and things go fast.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins, Overall?
But what about the team as a whole?
Consistency was a common theme in the locker room, at least before the loss to the San Jose Sharks, which officially began the bye week and NHL All-Star break. The Penguins losing streaks, er, winless streaks of seven and six games bookended a torrid stretch that included points in 18 of 21 games (15 wins).
But as the season has grown longer, losing has become more common than winning. Overall, the Penguins are 24-16-9, which can be read in two different ways. They have eight more wins than regulation losses, but they’ve also lost 25 games against just 24 wins.
That playoff spot is perhaps the most perilous since rookie Sidney Crosby and that clown car version of the 2005-06 Pittsburgh Penguins missed the playoffs and sank to the worst record in the NHL. The postseason is certainly in greater danger than since coach Mike Sullivan took the bench in December 2015.
I talked with Jason Zucker before the Penguins faced New Jersey almost two weeks ago, but just three games ago. The Penguins played a structured game, even if they didn’t do enough to hang a few goals on New Jersey, which played a defense-first brand of hockey.
The Penguins lost 2-1 in OT.
Zucker expressed an unvarnished sentiment, but it landed awkwardly with me. It was one of those moments I haven’t yet shared with you because it changed my view of the room in three seconds, and I didn’t know how to put it in context.
After losses to the Devils and four to the Carolina Hurricanes, did the Penguins have to prove they could beat the top teams in the Metro Division?
“No. No, we don’t have to prove we can beat anyone. We just have to play our game,” Zucker said emphatically.
That backed me up by a step or two. I may have recoiled just a bit. I expected something along the lines of — we have to prove ourselves every day — or — every game is a challenge, and must keep getting better. However, Zucker put his cards on the table without hesitation.
Maybe he was a bit offended by the question. But it also spoke to the feeling I’ve gotten in the room for much of the season. For better or worse, there has been resistance to their tenuous situation.
But we do know how coach Mike Sullivan felt about his team at the end of the “first half.” (First half is a term Shelly Anderson and I debate every year. Technically, the first half ends at Game 41, but the All-Star break is never symmetrically scheduled).
Sullivan was visibly frustrated after the San Jose loss on Jan. 28.
“We’re certainly not getting (defensive effort and scoring chances among the four lines) consistently enough, and it reflects in our results. And that’s all I can say — we need to be better. The expectations are higher,” Sullivan said. “…We’ve got to do a better job keeping it out of our net. We’ve got to be harder to play against. And I think it starts with managing the puck, and that goes to all four lines and our defense as well.”
The following 33 are going to be a battle. The March 3 trade deadline looms, and the barbarians are at the gates, though GM Ron Hextall’s feelings on the current team remain unknown.
The loss to San Jose probably did more to leave a sour taste than any loss this season. How the boys wash it down when the season re-fires Tuesday will also tell us much about what comes next.