The Pittsburgh Penguins are in trouble. Real trouble. The Carolina Hurricanes have passed them for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Philadelphia Flyers hung 51 shots on them, Edmonton significantly out-chanced them and the Penguins managed just one even strength goal against Calgary on Saturday.
This is supposed to be the stretch run.
On Saturday the Penguins second and third lines were, as too often the case, a non-factor on the scoresheet and the ice. Actually, their second line with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel were a negative, not a positive until the final 10 minutes of the game.
And yet there has been a lot of positive spin from press row and in the fan base. But they scored three power play goals!
I’m not buying the positivity; not with a wooden nickel or in exchange for all of the tea in China.
The Penguins lost on Saturday, as they could have lost on Wednesday (the Penguins were out-chanced 29-21 against Edmonton. It seems the scorekeepers missed several Grade A chances in the first 10 minutes of the third. Adding those, it should have been 32-21, at least).
“I thought we played a pretty solid game and that’s what I told our guys afterward,” said head coach Mike Sullivan, Saturday. “You’re going to play some games when you play pretty well and you don’t get the result.”
The Penguins had just one even strength goal yesterday. Teams which rely on NHL officials for offensive chances or production are usually better golfers because they’re on the course much earlier than teams which push 5v5 play.
Perhaps it’s the look and feel of the Penguins. Maybe it’s the consistency of inconsistency. I’ve been around enough teams, by now I usually have a sense of their potential. I was the first to call the Penguins 2016 Stanley Cup run, well before the March of the Penguins. I knew that team had something. But now, it’s a lot of bad hockey and a lot of talk about things they need to do.
I’ve been working on a locker room story about the Penguins struggling to find consistency. I spoke with one veteran core-player who expressed confidence and calm because of their experience.
“We’re confident we’re going to get things done,” he said referring to their experience with Stanley Cup runs and one of the most talented core groups which will ever exist in the salary cap era. He said it matter of factly as he smiled and shrugged.
Perhaps the Penguins shouldn’t be so confident. Maybe they should worry and add urgency to their game; sound the alarm because things are not going well. Carolina passed them and threatens to zoom by as they limbo, dance, chant and celebrate their way into a cohesive unit.
Worry should arise after seeing a highly paid winger stand flat-footed in the defensive zone while a defenseman wraps the pucks up the wall for him to play only to find he’s not there. Maybe it’s the acquisition of Nick Bjugstad whom the Penguins see as a power forward, but has been better at center. Perhaps it’s the touting of Jared McCann as the third line center without many practical results, yet.
Maybe it’s seeing that same highly paid winger playing out of position so the Penguins can make Bjugstad a power forward. And not seeing that winger shoot like he once did.
Above all, it’s seeing the Penguins fail to achieve sustained offensive pressure against any opponent. When was the last time they kept you on the edge of your seat while–as Mike Lange would say–they were buzzing like bees around a hive? They haven’t buckled an opposing defense with relentless pressure in a long time.
It’s been they who buckle and fail to push back when the opponents charge.
The Penguins middle lines have been a disconnect between the top and fourth line, all season. McCann is going to be a keeper, his raw skills are evident but I’m not sold on his current third line center credentials. He may be a high-energy winger or a dynamic fourth line center but third line center seems to be a bit of a reach, at the moment (though he would have fit very well with the 2016 Penguins high shot total, puck chase identity).
The third line was out-chanced 8-2 yesterday and played less than 10 minutes.
There are positives. The Penguins defense is rounding into form. They pushed Philadelphia into a perimeter arc and disrupted Edmonton enough to keep them off the scoreboard. The defensemen have been doing their job and the addition of Justin Schultz will only improve the group.
McCann and Teddy Blueger got after the Edmonton defense and created some chaos. Zach Aston-Reese keeps getting better…and better. And Sidney Crosby is playing at an all-world level.
The Penguins have been bubbling around .500 for a long time–they were 3-6-1 in 10, won a couple of games, now they’re 4-5-1 in their last 10.
That’s still not good enough. The occasional passengers and the inconsistency are weighing the Penguins down and very soon this will be their identity. If they don’t get worried, get mad, bring their very best in the very near future, they will suffer the same ignominious end as the LA Kings and Chicago Blackhawks before them; angry fans and a rebuild sooner than anticipated.
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