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3 Thoughts During Penguins’ Losing Streak; Is Everyone on Same Page?



NHL trade rumors, Pittsburgh Penguins, Jason Zucker, Kasperi Kapanen

LAS VEGAS — Boston in the morning. Las Vegas in the afternoon. We’ll put down stakes here for several days, and the Pittsburgh Penguins will use Sin City to wash away the sour taste of Beantown and another lost third-period lead, this time in front of a national TV audience.

The loss was their fifth in a row and sixth in seven games. Every team goes through these. The Penguins are without their top two defensemen, Kris Letang and Jeff Petry.

Those are the cards to play to lessen the impact of the stacking losses, but those also don’t matter when looking at the Eastern Conference standings.

Nor do they fully explain what is going on with the Penguins. Despite not having their top two defensemen, the Penguins have played well for stretches of games and even built leads.

3 Pittsburgh Penguins Thoughts:

1) Not every team goes through this twice. The standings in the Metro Division are so tight that winning streaks don’t create much space, but losing streaks give up significant ground.

The Penguins’ playoff standing is tenuous. They are tied with the New York Islanders for the second wild- card with 44 points, but have one game in hand.

The Penguins’ penchant for handing over leads is not necessarily unique among teams this season. There have been too many comebacks across the NHL, but that doesn’t absolve the Penguins for their repeated squanders.

In fact, not having their top two defensemen is a better reason for a lack of offense, not defense. With the Penguins’ “defensive” defensemen, holding leads should be easier.

“We have to find a way,” Sidney Crosby said while shaking his head after the Winter Classic loss in Boston Monday.

If members of the Penguins’ bottom-six aren’t providing offense, they need to provide exemplary defense.

Jeff Carter and Kasperi Kapanen noted the lack of offense, attributing it partly to a high number of defensive-zone starts, but the numbers show they don’t have an abnormal number of those.

It also seems the Penguins should install more defensive schemes for holding leads.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are 5-2-6 in one-goal games and have won only 12 of 17 games when leading after two periods.

The players’ mistakes are the primary cause. However, coach Mike Sullivan must bear some responsibility for the lost leads. The Penguins’ roster is what it is, and the problem has persisted. Player after player has told PHN that playing more conservatively invites comebacks, but maybe a change in strategy is needed.

2) When does GM Ron Hextall feel heat?

Paul Zeise is always a fun chat when he invites me on 93.7 the Fan. After the Winter Classic, he posed a great question that I tip-toed around, or through.

He asked, “When does Ron Hextall feel some heat?”

There was some media chatter and questions at the Winter Classic about Mike Sullivan, too.

Sullivan isn’t dishing much ice time to Kapanen, Danton Heinen, Drew O’Connor, and also limited P.O Joseph on Monday. A strong case can be made that the above players (excluding Joseph) haven’t earned the time.

But Hextall hasn’t made any changes, either.

PHN recently chatted with one player who seemed to subtly question his role on the team. That was the first time in a long time I can remember a player doing so in the Sullivan era.

The on-ice answers are incomplete. Losing breeds friction, but the ice-time distribution pitted against the lack of changes certainly breeds the question of whether Sullivan and Hextall are on the same page.

3) It is about time to turn loose P.O Joseph. 

His defensive game has come a long way. I don’t mean that it’s competent. I mean, it’s becoming very good. He’s doing some things that only Kris Letang does. He’s attacking the rush as Letang does, moving well in the defensive zone to pressure the opponent’s possession, and joining the play in the offensive zone.

Joseph, 23, shows all the tools to be a legit top-four defenseman.

The more the Pittsburgh Penguins lean on him, the better he plays. He seems to derive confidence from being needed.

Joseph also plays better beside more defensive defensemen, such as Jan Rutta, Chad Ruhwedel, and Mark Friedman. He asserts himself less beside Letang and Petry.

As he sits right now, Joseph is a solid NHL defenseman. If he keeps improving, the Penguins have a keeper.

Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.