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Penguins’ Mindset Problem? Why Breakdowns & Letdowns Dog Playoff Push



Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Lots of shots and far too many goals. Loose performances have far outnumbered structured, praiseworthy games and the Pittsburgh Penguins have just five wins in their last 12 games. They will have a chance to grab a two-point lead, with three games-in-hand, on the Washington Capitals with a regulation win Thursday at Capital One Arena.

It’s time to start acknowledging their situation: Perhaps unlike any year in the Crosby era, the Penguins’ hold on a playoff position is tenuous.

The Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres are catching up to the Penguins and Capitals. Also, add the New York Islanders, who should figure it out any day now. Five worthy teams, but only two will make the postseason.

If the Penguins needed any motivation, they face arch-rival Washington tonight. It’s a chance to gain anywhere from a two-to-eight point lead over Washington (pending the results of those games-in-hand) for a wild-card spot.

It’s a chance to make Washington the last team in a playoff spot. And the hunted.

“It’s a long-time rivalry. And again this year, we are in a dogfight with them in the standings,” defenseman Marcus Pettersson said. “So it’s kind of a huge game for us. And to go there and play and see how many fans show up — it’s going to be a good atmosphere, hopefully, a playoff mindset, that type of game.”

For the record, Pettersson gets a kick out of Penguins fans on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery after Penguins wins.

But the Penguins cannot submit a cut-and-paste job from their OT win over Florida or their wide-open win against the Ottawa Senators, and certainly not their penalty-filled loss to Ottawa. 

The Penguins have allowed 39 or more shots in six of the 12 games since the NHL’s holiday break ended Dec. 27.

But asking Penguins if it’s a mindset yielded a different answer than you or I might expect. It seemed like a yes-or-no question, but both Marcus Pettersson and Mike Sullivan veered into details, not a mindset.

“It probably is (a mindset). At the end of the day, it’s important that we’re a team that is hard to play against. It’s hard to win this league consistently if you’re not,” Sullivan said. “And you can define that in a lot of different ways. We can talk for an hour about what that means to be hard to play against. But when we talk with our group, a lot of times it always starts — for me, with our team — with the decisions we make with the puck.”

Why they are careless with the puck is a question that probably is almost two decades old. In part, it is part of the DNA of these Pittsburgh Penguins. When an opponent offers to play a wide-open game, they usually — and gladly — accept the invitation.

The Penguins have done so to their detriment.

I mean, we’ve got such a high offensive side. The upside we have on offense is so high that you don’t need to take chances,” Pettersson said. “But you know, I think on both sides, (Florida) had a loose game. We had a loose game. So sometimes those games can happen, but we want to limit those games and play more as we did in New Jersey.”

The Penguins lost to New Jersey in OT, but allowed only one goal in regulation and 25 total shots.

Otherwise, the Penguins have not exactly been stingy. They’ve shown flashes of being able to play a tight-checking, limiting game, but more often have been unable to corral themselves or their opponent.

The results are five wins and 12 points in 12 games (5-5-2); not exactly a playoff pace. Sullivan has probably dealt with more frustration this season than the last few combined.

Sullivan perhaps agreed the Penguins’ mindset is an issue, but then gave voice in coaching jargon to what has caused so many fans to throw up their hands in disgust.

“I think managing the puck is such an important aspect of being hard to play against and just having a heightened awareness of making good decisions at critical times, whether it’s late shifts, in certain areas of the rink, understanding who has momentum,” said Sullivan. “So much that goes into (being hard to play against). But at the end of the day, our ability to manage the puck goes a long way to set us up for success. And I think we have the capability of doing it.”

In other words, turnovers, mental mistakes like bad line changes, and not getting the puck deep give the Penguins’ opponents chances. Not holding the puck and deflating an opponent when they have momentum compounds the wide-open game.

The Penguins are now the first wild card, by virtue of winning percentage, although they’re tied with the Washington Capitals at 56 points.

Buffalo also has three games-in-hand on Washington, and has 53 points. Florida is four back, and the Islanders are five back, with no games in hand.

The schedule-maker compacted the Penguins’ schedule in the second half. It will be tougher for the oldest team in the league. They must not only win their games-in-hand, but win more than five of every 12.

Call it mindset. Call it awareness, both in-game and of the bigger picture. It’s time for the Pittsburgh Penguins to make better choices, or others will make those for them.