The Pittsburgh Penguins might be tougher to read than blank wallpaper. The simplicity that typifies their game in good times has become the high-risk complexity in recent bad times. The up and down nature of the Penguins has been replaced only by inconsistency.
In the third period, the Penguins trailed the Philadelphia Flyers by two goals and came back to win. The Penguins trailed the Toronto Maple Leafs and never really had a chance despite 46 shots. And the Penguins trailed the Carolina Hurricanes 4-2 in the third period before a comeback fell short.
It’s not just the last three games, but they’ve given up four goals in each, trailed in the third period, and the opponents’ goals are too often the result of Penguins’ mistakes.
“It was about attention to detail and execution. And in some instances, we self-inflicted with some of the opportunities we gave them,” head coach Mike Sullivan said after the 4-3 loss to Carolina on Sunday.
Simple question today. Are the Pittsburgh Penguins trending in the right direction?
“I don’t think we’re going in the wrong direction by any means. I think we played two good teams and I think we know we didn’t have our best there. And it’s a matter of a few things here and there and cleaning those up. And, you know, we’re still competing, and we’re right there,” Danton Heinen replied.
In six games this month, Heinen has three points (2-1-3), though he’s been scoreless in four of the six games. He’s spent the last two games beside Evgeni Malkin and Jeff Carter, which is a line that has most signified the Penguins’ need for consistency. They were the best line in the distant loss to Toronto and much less effective against Carolina.
The Penguins’ top line with Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, and Bryan Rust has been the only consistency in the Penguins game.
“It’s just been up and down for us, kind of, lately. And I think we know we’ve got to be better in that sense–at the beginning of the year, we were playing some really good hockey, and it was a lot of fun. So we’ve just got to be smart with the puck and keep it simple and not being too high risk,” Guentzel said.
Heinen’s answer made the most sense to me. They’re not going in the wrong direction. It’s a sideways path that could veer either way. They played hard, simple games against the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings (coincidentally or not, without Evgeni Malkin) before getting beaten by two playoff teams.
As not-so-fun aside, I wrote this two years ago, Sunday. On Feb. 19, 2020 (just before the world ended), I asked Mike Sullivan why his team struggled to play a simple game when both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were healthy. At the time, he gave me raised eyebrows and an inward sigh.
“I don’t really have a good answer for you…,” he began back then.
Two years to the day later, we’re asking the same question, but perhaps in a more complex form. The Pittsburgh Penguins are going sideways and searching for answers.
“Clean up,” “details,” “execution,” “effort,” “consistency,” and a handful of other bumper stickers are otherwise indicative of the Penguins’ primary issue. Too many players not named Guentzel, Crosby, and Rust are not producing and not playing good hockey. The Penguins are giving goals with turnovers as they try to make pretty plays.
We’ve been over the Kasperi Kapanen disappointment. Perhaps the power-play goal on Sunday will spark Evan Rodriges. Perhaps Heinen will find the consistent stroke he had in the first couple of months.
However, the biggest issue is the simplicity in their game is gone. Their aggressive puck pressure and swarming presence with a net drive have existed only intermittently since mid-January. The puck pressure created turnovers which led to rush attempts and sustained offensive pressure. The Penguins’ best defense usually takes place 150 feet from their net.
Instead, the team is turning the puck over and chasing.
That’s been the case for over one month, and the NHL trade deadline is just under one month away. In four of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ next six games, they face the third-place New York Rangers, first place Carolina, and the beasts of the Atlantic Division, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Florida Panthers.
We will get a full accounting of where the Penguins fall in the Eastern Conference.
There is plenty of time to pull out of the funk, but there’s also as much time to cement the bad habits which have not vanished.