Three games in four days showed three different versions of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Two losses and a win provided a buffet of lessons and perceptions, with each user free to take what they want, but an unmistakable reality is emerging.
There is a fundamental point for the team and the rest of the NHL to take note. The Penguins are not the same team that set the standard in speed and aggressive forecheck, unleashing hell upon opposing defensemen for 60 minutes, but there remains a good team.
The Penguins are not the same team that could wear out opponents with an irrepressible puck pursuit and over-the-top talent. They still have the talent, but it is different now.
The other teams can skate, too, including their chief rivals in the Metro Division. The Penguins know this, but it seems sometimes they don’t truly believe it.
And therein rests the Penguins’ opportunity and problem.
“(The Vegas win) reinforces what kind of game we have to commit to playing in order to get success,” said Lars Eller. “When we do that, we’ve shut out quite a few teams here. So we have that game within the team, but we have to bring it. We have to bring that mentality every night. And that’s the challenge.”
The Penguins faced three very good teams, from the defending Stanley Cup champions to the 2022-23 top two teams in the Metro Division. A couple or few losses were quite possible even if the Penguins played their very best game for 60 minutes.
Unfortunately, the Penguins did not play their best until the end of the three-game gauntlet … against the Western Conference opponent. Why they revert to their worst impulses against their rivals might be a matter for Dr. Phil’s couch.
After frustrating losses to swift skating Metro rivals, the Penguins’ self-perception should be called into question.
Why can the Penguins play their best game against the Western Conference teams and indirect rivals like the Buffalo Sabres but absolutely chase the game by trying too hard, making terrible decisions, and insisting on trading chances with those teams?
New Jersey unraveled the Penguins. By later in the second period, the Penguins were a team of 18 skaters trying to make individual plays and high-risk passes, abandoning the responsible hockey that netted them five straight wins.
The Penguins stayed in the middle of the ring against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday. They traded chances, trying to beat Carolina at Carolina’s man-to-man high-pressure game.
That didn’t work, either.
Why did they abandon their best game against the two great skating rivals? It seemed the Penguins wanted to prove their bonafides against the teams that followed in their footsteps.
Instead, they’ve lost the last 11 games against Carolina and New Jersey over the last 12 months. Despite a new season, the games had far too similar look.
Yet, on Sunday, the Penguins did a reasonable version of their best game.
“There’s a lot of detail that goes into (the system), but I think (responsibility) is an important aspect of building a game that we can put on the ice each and every night that gives us a chance to win,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “And I think when we do that, we have a certain discipline — a certain diligence and a heightened awareness — I think our team can compete with any team in the league. And we’ve certainly shown that in this early part of the season. So now our challenge is to do it game in and game out.”
What we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks is Erik Karlsson can efficiently stack points with an extraordinary skill set. At 36 years old, Sidney Crosby is still a force of nature, unstoppable by mortal opponents. Bryan Rust is healthy and playing some great hockey. Marcus Pettersson is learning to read Karlsson and has been a lockdown defender, especially in the last couple of games.
And when the Penguins play well, they play really well. They have a remarkable five shutouts with three goalies in 17 games. That’s a pace for 19 or 20 shutouts over 82 games.
Sure, the Penguins lineup has flaws and holes in the lineup. The third pairing has a combined one assist in 17 games. Fourth-line center Noel Acciari scored his second point of the season and his first goal on Sunday.
And the power play … well, that’s a turkey for which there isn’t a plate big enough to send the leftovers home with the relatives.
And yet, it’s been a string of impressive wins and bewildering losses. One version of the team is a playoff-worthy squad that takes away scoring chances. The other wants to outscore opponents on their own terms, to their own detriment.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have the Rangers, Sabres, and Maple Leafs on the coming schedule. Yet their biggest opponent just might be themselves.