Call it what you will. A wakeup call, a call to action or a rude awakening. After the Pittsburgh Penguins flat-lined Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres, strong words followed. The words were far more strident than typical promises following a single loss. Beginning with Evgeni Malkin’s verbal spanking which immediately followed the game, the Penguins players including Zach Aston-Reese offered a similar assessment Friday after practice.
After they went through a very direct and specific practice designed not to introduce new concepts but hammer home basic yet ignored features of their game, the reality of the situation had not changed.
And not everyone thought it was a bad thing. PHN rolled through the locker room Friday and while the overall theme was the same, different players took different lessons from the drubbing.
Aston-Reese gave what was perhaps the most optimistic yet realistic view, “sometimes it’s good to get punched in the mouth early.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins certainly took a right hook.
“We were disappointed in ourselves. You’re going to lose games in this league, but it’s the way we lose them,” said Patric Hornqvist. “We gave them so many odd-man rushes. Things we can control.”
For the record, Aston-Reese told PHN the Penguins gave up seven odd-man rushes. That may not include the near-breakaways when the deep Penguins defenseman was able to catch up or disrupt the breakaway before the shot. The Penguins yielded a few of those chances because Buffalo sent a flyer out of the zone to stretch the Penguins defense.
Buffalo had far too much success getting past the Penguins forecheckers and behind the Penguins defense by using that flyer. Coaches more often use that tactic in international hockey than the NHL. Worse, the Penguins knew it was coming.
“We scouted that. We watched video on it,” admitted Aston-Reese.
I don’t know about you, but my reaction upon hearing that was a surprise. My facial expression drew an acknowledgment from Aston-Reese, too. The performance was overall inexcusable but the aspects of the game plan which the players could not execute did not end with defending the stretch pass.
“It was tough last night. We weren’t really supporting each other and coming out of the zone, therefore you’re not getting any chances going the other way,” center Nick Bjugstad explained.
Cooperative play was the phrase that pays Thursday night and again Friday. Head coach Mike Sullivan used that analysis a few times. Individual play or non-cooperative play can be a side effect of a team with a lot of new faces and not enough time together.
“We were all responsible for that (Thursday) night. I think it’s more just being supportive of each other. Put the puck in the right spot so we can get to it, and being strong on our sticks,” said Bjugstad.
Past and future Bjugstad linemate Hornqvist agreed without giving too many specifics.
“We need five guys around the puck. It’s so much harder to go through guys if you have layers of support,” Hornqvist said. “It’s the same thing in the offensive zone. If you’re close to the puck, even if you bounce the puck off your stick that’s one guy there to help you out.”
It may have been too optimistic to assume the Penguins would be at full strength in the first game. There are too many new faces, the coaches juggled their lines and pairings after preseason, again, and trade rumors hit the locker room days before the season.
Perhaps it is fitting the Pittsburgh Penguins best player was goalie Matt Murray, the only player who is supposed to play an individual game. The team probably won’t hit their peak anytime soon but a little progress Saturday night wouldn’t hurt. Perhaps they’ll even avoid the boos from “the faithful” in the second game.