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Kingerski: Penguins Need Better From Goaltenders and Defense, ASAP

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The Pittsburgh Penguins season is already at the 20% mark. The abbreviated 2020-21 NHL season is not when players can spend the first couple of months finding their legs or settling into a groove. It was “go time” from the opening puck drop, and the expected logjam in the East Division has formed as expected.

We knew the Penguins defense would be a work in progress, but we didn’t know the Penguins’ goalie position would be soft, too.

Tristan Jarry is playing … OK. He was brilliant in the second period on Saturday night, but the scoreboard still showed a couple or even a few stoppable goals in the Penguins 4-3 loss. 

Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan generally defends his players or offers some carrot of praise, especially for his goalies. He clearly hedged on Jarry, Saturday night.

“It’s, it’s … it’s, it’s a tough one right now, right after the game … to make an assessment. I do think he made some big saves, especially in that second period,” Sullivan began. “Obviously, we don’t want to give up four goals.”

Jarry flashed far too much net at Jordan Eberle on the first goal, left a juicy rebound on the third goal, and a long-range shot trickled through for the game-winner.

That’s enough to erase the acrobatic saves of the second period.

“It’s hard to win when (you give up four goals), but I thought he made some big saves in the second period,” Sullivan concluded.

Penguins Defense

Saturday night, the Penguins defense couldn’t blame injuries for their performance. With the emergence of P-O Joseph who scored his first NHL goal, the Penguins had most of a competent blue line on the ice, even without Brian Dumoulin or Marcus Pettersson.

Unfortunately, what the Penguins had, again, was a cavalcade of mistakes by defensemen who should know better.

Defenseman Mike Matheson drifted towards a covered player, lunged with his stick, and came up with air as Jordan Eberle swooped past for a go-ahead goal.

Kris Letang vacated his net-front position despite Joseph having coverage on a forechecker. Consequently, Cal Clutterbuck and the best fourth line in hockey scored a momentous tying goal despite the Penguins’ domination.

“I’m sure Tanger was trying to help in that circumstance, but if he stops in front, it’s probably a nothing play,” Sullivan said. “Listen, things happen fast out there.”

If it were a bad game, this column wouldn’t be written. It’s been a bad start to the season for the Penguins defenders and goalies.

In seven starts, Jarry is 2-4-1 with a whopping 3.95 GAA, and a paltry .857 save percentage. No one is attempting to re-litigate the Penguins’ decision to keep Jarry over Matt Murray. Still, Jarry must show the silent assassin form which catapulted him into the starter’s net.

And quickly.

The MassMutual East Division is already gridlocked like the Squirrell Tunnels on Friday afternoon (in a non-pandemic world). The Pittsburgh Penguins currently have 11 games played and 11 points. They are just one point ahead of FIVE teams for the final playoff spot. The other teams have only 10 games played, except New Jersey, which has played just nine.

In other words, the Penguins are a breath away from last place.

We knew Matheson was a work in progress. The reports out of Florida were not glowing, and nor were the highlight reels. But the bigger problem is currently Kris Letang.

As good as Joseph has been, and John Marino has been improving, especially since being moved back to his natural right side, Letang is well below his career norms.

Last season, Letang scored 44 points in 61 games. He’s currently on a 22-point pace in a similar 56 games. Last season, Letang had 91 blocks and 31 takeaways. This season he is on pace for about 60 blocks.

The takeaways are worthy of special note. Letang has just one takeaway this season.

And before you say “turnovers,” Letang has fewer of those, too. He’s on pace for about 60 of those, which would be his best rate in several years. However, in context, fewer takeaways, fewer points, and fewer turnovers also points to a less active Letang.

The eye test says so, too.

The axiom, “it’s a long season,” doesn’t apply. This is a sprint, and the Penguins are firmly ensconced in the middle of the East Division with a pack of teams with them. Six teams separated by just one point.

And if a few more pucks aren’t kept out of the Penguins net with better defense and better goaltending, it is the Pittsburgh Penguins who very well could be one of those teams who “just” missed the playoffs.

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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.

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