CRANBERRY — Three regulation losses in the first five games have followed blossoming offseason hope.
Over five games, the Pittsburgh Penguins have alternated between world beaters and the beaten. They’ve dominated periods but not games. They’ve shut down opponents but been lit up by their own mistakes and absenteeism in the same game.
Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have filled the scoresheets, and Erik Karlsson has dazzled. And yet, the Penguins have lost more than they’ve won. In the black mirror looking forward, the struggle closely resembles the second half of last season as the Penguins stumbled from a 90% chance to make the playoffs to not qualifying. Despite coach Mike Sullivan’s aversion to discussion last season, those Penguins had far too many good moments on which to hang their collective hat while ignoring the crumbling foundations of a team not good enough for the playoffs.
“I don’t think (the loss in St. Louis) was a game that’s certainly emblematic of what this group’s about,” Sullivan said. “You know, I don’t think we were at our best, and we didn’t play the game with a sense of purpose that’s necessary to our success. And I think the biggest case in point was the number of chances we gave up off the rush. I know this group is capable of more.”
What happened or how to fix the one-ice mistakes aren’t the hardest questions. In fact, the what and hows seem to be relatively benign queries to the insidious “why?”
In the Penguins’ world, there has been a reliance on brilliant periods or explosive short bursts of offense to win the day. They have relied on those meteoric spans, but too often, they don’t get those outbursts or dig themselves into a deficit too deep to overcome.
Sullivan was appropriately unhappy after the Penguins were dispatched by the St. Louis Blues 6-3 Saturday at Enterprise Center. Amidst the dissatisfaction was an equally important admission that Sullivan did not have immediate answers following the haphazard gong show of odd-man rushes and missed assignments.
“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I have to digest it first.”
That loss didn’t sit well in many stomachs because it followed what was a bad loss against playoff-spot rival Detroit Red Wings.
“We hope it’s just one game,” Bryan Rust said Monday. “That’s what we’re working on in practice today.”
The Penguins’ problems seem as much, if not more, mental than physical. Few teams could dominate a period, as did the Penguins in their loss against Detroit last Wednesday. The Penguins stormed the Calgary Flames in the third period in the game before that.
As much as I’ve kept many questions being asked publicly at arm’s length, those very real worries, doubts, questions, and problems are on deck. It’s too soon to make any proclamations about the Penguins’ immediate future or season outlook. It is just five games with a bevy of new players, but the bedrock of the team remains unchanged.
Removing one stumbling block, recent insinuations that the system is dramatically different were tamped down in the locker room.
“(The system) is pretty similar to other teams. I don’t know what other teams are really doing, (but) it’s pretty similar to what I played before in Anaheim. The system is maybe more aggressive on the forecheck,” winger Rickard Rakell told PHN.
It seems most players would not agree the system is complicated or a radical departure from the norm.
Yet, because of the similarities to recent iterations, the commonalities must be questioned. To repeat, it’s too early to give answers, but for the first time beyond frustrated public sentiment, some serious questions can legitimately be asked.
Penguins Questions to Watch:
Some questions don’t need to be asked in the locker room because they’re more difficult to answer from the inside and certainly elevate beyond the daily focus of professional athletes. Yet the external questions are growing in legitimacy, if only for a moment.
Is that combination of star players with Sullivan getting stale — is the message, no matter how correct, wearing thin?
Can the oldest roster in the NHL consistently find the same fire and desperation as their younger opponents?
Can one minor swap or tweak fix what ails them?
Do the Penguins know what ails them?
Penguins Bright Spots
Karlsson has been a bright spot. He had a rough outing in St. Louis, but one game in which he tried to do too much is hardly a cause for criticism compared to the brilliance he’s displayed.
Radim Zohorna brought a snap to the third line. Coincidentally, temporarily, or legitimately, Lars Eller and Drew O’Connor simultaneously elevated their games in St. Louis.
Evgeni Malkin does not look 10 years younger, but he looks aggressive and determined to put points on the scoreboard. Malkin has been the Penguins’ best player through five games. Reilly Smith looks like Malkin’s version of Guentzel. Finally, a Robin for Malkin’s Batman.
Ryan Graves won’t be this shaky for long. He’s adjusting and admitted last Wednesday that the Penguins’ system is a steep curve from the fastidious defensive focus he executed in New Jersey under coach Lindy Ruff.
Tristan Jarry stood on his head to keep the Penguins in the game Saturday. He looks healthy enough to face the challenges his team’s matador defense has provided.
The power play has looked dangerous, even when they don’t score (Saturday excluded). Bryan Rust replaced Rickard Rakell on Monday, which is a good move. Rust is a better puck retriever and will be able to go to the net.
There is a simple solution to all of the above questions, worries, angst, and frets. To quell the internal dissatisfaction and the burgeoning external anger, the team can simply win a few games. The great players can flex their Hall of Fame talents on both ends of the ice in complete efforts. Role players can fulfill their roles, especially by creating momentum and blunting an opponent’s momentum. No more second-period meltdowns or extended vacations from the defensive zone.
It’s that simple to write and to speak.
But obviously, it isn’t so easy to do and seems to be becoming more difficult for the Penguins. And that’s why the questions are growing before the end of October.