The reverberations in the Pittsburgh Penguins team and fanbase were palpable. The Penguins lost for the second time in less than a week against their likely Round One opponent, the New York Rangers. While head coach Mike Sullivan was able to make a few alterations at Wednesday’s practice, many fans tripped over the dog running towards the keyboard to predict impending doom.
Those poor dogs.
Let’s put the losses in proper context. The first loss was a flatline, no-show, no juice, third game in four nights, screw this, loss. They happen, though ideally, they do not happen against a probable playoff opponent four weeks before the postseason.
The second loss at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday was the one to dissect. The Rangers upped the speed, disrupted the Penguins’ breakouts, and kept the Penguins to only 24 shots on goal.
“I think details-wise, we still kind of got under siege tonight and didn’t execute on our breakouts as well as we could. Give them credit. That’s a really good area of their game–is their forecheck. So I think they hemmed us in our zone a little bit too much and caused us not to have as much juice to get going and create more offensive zone shifts,” Mike Matheson said
The Rangers were missing Ryan Strome. The Penguins were missing Jason Zucker and still finding chemistry among their lines. New York found instant chemistry with the red hot Frank Vatrano, snagged for a fourth-round pick from Florida. He had four goals in his first four games with the Blueshirts. Andrew Copp seems like an immediate fit, too.
There’s no question the Rangers looked a bit better than the Penguins.
Looks can also be deceiving, too.
The Pittsburgh Penguins may have passed up more than a dozen shots on Tuesday, yet they had more scoring chances and more high-danger scoring chances, according to our friends at NaturalStatTrick.com.
The Penguins gave up control of the puck by passing up shots. Those extra passes usually became counterattacks.
Believe it or not, there were good things to build on, too.
But losses are losses.
Pittsburgh Penguins, Potentials
Are Marcus Pettersson and Chad Ruhwedel the best third pairing when Mark Friedman is sharing press box nachos?
The gritty fourth line is starting to chip in offense with Brian Boyle and Teddy Blueger. Boyle has three goals in his last nine games–that’s a 27-goal pace–and the line has four goals in only 28 even-strength minutes.
But is Radim Zohorna the best option for the fourth line?
How much of an impact will Jason Zucker make now that he’s healthy?
The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers series has not yet been decided. While you and I may still think of the Penguins as Stanley Cup champions, the truth is they haven’t been in nearly five years. They have to rebuild that confidence and swagger.
On Tuesday, a team with swagger would not have tried to be cute against Shesterkin.
Perhaps Drew O’Connor would be a good fit on the fourth line. Evan Rodrigues? Maybe Friedman will improve the breakouts under the heavy Rangers forecheck. Potentially Zucker will add a bit more speed and grit to the Penguins’ top six, which looks a touch slower than the Rangers (but more skilled).
And I’ll have to admit the Penguins fourth line seems to have improved without Zach Aston-Reese, who was in a rut this season and played the puck like a hot potato to preserve his defenseman assignment. Another big body willing to muck it up near the net could only help.
The fourth line can be a series-changing weapon. Just ask the New York Islanders.
The Penguins second line with Malkin and Rakell is also better than anything the Rangers can put on the ice but the new line is just beginning to jell.
“I think the last two games, we had some really good looks. I’m starting to learn where he is on the ice and where we can combine our strengths. I’m excited,” Rakell said.
The Eastern Conference has between six and eight teams that could win the Stanley Cup. It is arguably the greatest cluster of playoff-worthy teams in the salary cap era. A first-round loss will be the summer pain for several excellent teams.
The Penguins are a 50/50 bet to be one of those teams, but with 50% odds also means a 50% chance for a win–which the Penguins still have. The series hasn’t begun, and the Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t yet a finished product.
Head coach Mike Sullivan may have a wrinkle or three waiting for New York. You don’t think he will let Chris Kreider hang around the Penguins net with impunity, do you? Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman was famous for juggling his lines in the playoffs to create favorable matchups.
Sullivan hasn’t needed to do that, but don’t be surprised. The Penguins have five wingers worth top-six ice (counting the improving Kasperi Kapanen). Sullivan will have plenty of options, and
Yes, the New York Rangers won, but…it was only the beginning, not the end of this saga that will define the 2021-22 Pittsburgh Penguins.