The Pittsburgh Penguins remain engaged in a fight to assert themselves into an Eastern Conference playoff spot. For every win, there is a loss. For every two wins, there have been two losses. Into the third month of the season, the Penguins are still hovering at .500, and sooner or later, they or their competition will claim the high ground in the Stanley Cup chase.
To this point, the Penguins toughest opponent has proven to be the Penguins.
Penalties. Shorthanded goals. Turnovers. East-west play. Defensive lapses. And the newest one unveiled Saturday against the Ottawa Senators–hard hands.
The Penguins appear to have great potential. Their talented core obviously has ability and experience to win. When the Penguins have played clean and simple games, they have won. Yet in more than half of their games, they have failed to do so and lost.
In the last two Penguins losses, they’ve given Ottawa and Philadelphia 12 and 13 minutes of power play time.
‘We beat ourselves,” Sullivan said after the Philadelphia loss.
Against Ottawa, they clanged posts, shot into the goaltenders skate, and then left the bench early creating a penalty for too many men on the ice. Against Philadelphia, they gave up a myriad of breakaways and a shorthanded goal. In the loss which preceded that, they attempted to play wide open hockey against the Colorado Avalanche, the highest scoring team in the league.
The list goes on.
What aren’t piling up are wins or solutions.
“There’s a lot to like,” Sullivan said after several losses.
“We did a lot of good things,” Sidney Crosby has repeated.
And yet nearly 30 games into the season, the Penguins trail the John Tavares-less New York Islanders in the standings. The Penguins also trail the rebuilding New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens. And the Penguins are tied with Carolina and assumed cellar dwellers Ottawa and Detroit.
However, the Penguins biggest fight this year has not been against Father Time, injuries or bad luck, but against themselves. One of the most talented teams in the Eastern Conference is inexplicably struggling to play well. Struggling to win games.
The Penguins second most successful line over the past couple weeks should not be led by Derek Grant, yet that’s the case as the Penguins second, and third lines, led by Evgeni Malkin and Derick Brassard have gone colder than a December walk across the Duquesne bridge.
“Our fourth line has been really good. I think Sid’s line has been really good,” Sullivan said last weekend. “And we’ve got to find a way to get some production through the middle of the lineup.”
Malkin’s one even strength goal since Oct. 30 stands out.
The Penguins should be following Sidney Crosby’s lead. The captain has been carrying the team with his classic gritty offense and low play. Though the Penguins could use one more piece in the middle lines for that needed production.
The team has a plethora of defensive defensemen, but in the wake of Justin Schultz’ injury, the Penguins are asking Jamie Oleksiak and Jack Johnson to add more offense. The roller coaster ride of Olli Maatta has also affected the Penguins push. When Maatta has played poorly, the Penguins are susceptible to being pinned in their own zone and thus have one more obstacle to overcome.
If the Penguins had not squandered previous opportunities, a goaltender theft like Ottawa loss would not be a big deal. Instead, it magnified the Penguins struggles and makes the Penguins match against the Islanders even more important, Monday night.
When the Penguins play a simple game with good puck management, simple plays, and ample shots, they win most. However, because of the Penguins lineup holes, it takes a strong effort to win games, now. That’s not something which has been true in a long time, but it is now. And the Penguins need to reconcile that new reality.
They cannot win games by “out-talenting” the opponents. They can, however, lose games by “out-talenting” and underperforming. And that’s why the Pittsburgh Penguins biggest opponent remains the Pittsburgh Penguins.