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Penguins’ Offensive Numbers Adding Up to Sour Season

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin

When the Pittsburgh Penguins raised a banner emblazoned with Jaromir Jagr’s No. 68 Sunday, it joined a number of others already in the rafters at PPG Paints Arena.

There were, for example, the ones commemorating the franchise’s five Stanley Cups, as well as those celebrating the other players who have had their numbers retired, Mario Lemieux and Michel Briere.

And then there are the ones honoring the 15 NHL scoring championships Penguins players have earned since Lemieux captured their first in 1987-88.

They are a tribute not only to the immense talents of the four guys — Lemieux (6), Jagr (5), Sidney Crosby (2) and Evgeni Malkin (2) — who claimed those Art Ross trophies, but to the offensive abilities of the players around them.

For most of the time since Lemieux broke into the league in 1984-85, the Penguins have had a potent, often overwhelming, offense.

Sure, they have struggled at times to prevent goals — that happened quite a bit, actually — but scoring them rarely was an issue.

It is now, however. And it is one of the primary reasons the Penguins are in real danger of losing visual contact with the Eastern Conference playoff field.

They have scored just 149 goals, sixth-fewest in the NHL. And that number is somewhat padded by their 10 empty-netters, tying Vancouver for sixth-most in the league.

The Penguins are not getting many at even-strength — their 105 goals while playing 5-on-5 are tied with Florida and Los Angeles for the 10th-fewest in the league — and their power play does not come close to making up the shortfall.

It has contributed just 24 goals, a total dwarfed by that of, say, Florida, which has gotten 48 — exactly twice the Penguins’ total — when the Panthers have a manpower advantage.

Still wondering why Florida has 21 more points than the Pittsburgh Penguins?

Count defenseman Erik Karlsson, who began playing against the Penguins in 2009, among those taken aback by his new team’s offensive issues.

“It’s not anything I’ve seen in my lifetime,” he said.

The Penguins have relied heavily on Sidney Crosby’s line, which has had Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust on the wings most of the time, to carry their offense in 2023-24. (Rickard Rakell replaced Guentzel on the left side when Guentzel was injured last week.)

Crosby, Guentzel and Rust certainly have done their share — and more — accounting for 68 of the team’s goals, including 54 of those scored at even-strength.

“It’s hard to rely on one line,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Balance is important.”

The paucity of production from other lines prompted Sullivan to reconfigure his second and third units during practice Monday, putting Evgeni Malkin between Drew O’Connor and Matthew Phillips and Lars Eller between Reilly Smith and Valtteri Puustinen.

“We’re trying to find line combinations that give us a chance to win,” Sullivan said. “What we’ve had here for a while hasn’t produced with any level of consistency. Not nearly the consistency that’s going to give us a chance to win, consistently. … I think we’ve been very patient with a lot of them, up to this point. We’re not getting traction that lives up to our expectations, so change is inevitable.”

One positive change that’s been largely overlooked — perhaps because it seems to have come at the expense of the Penguins’ customary offensive productivity — is the improvement in their team defense.

Although they’ve had a knack this season for allowing untimely goals, like the two Los Angeles scored in the final 6:11 of its 2-1 victory at PPG Paints Arena Sunday, the Penguins are the fourth-stingiest defensive team in the NHL, giving up an average of 2.63 goals per game.

Eller suggested that could prove to be their long-term salvation.

“I think it’s a better recipe for success to win games 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, than winning games 6-5, 5-4,” he said. “You’re going to have more success with being able to keep pucks out of your net and defend well, and then capitalize on the chances you get, if you want to go far in the playoffs.”

Of course, the Pittsburgh Penguins are nowhere near qualifying for the 2024 playoffs at this point. And that doesn’t seem likely to change unless they can rediscover the collective scoring touch that has been a virtual birthright for this franchise for decades.