DETROIT — The Pittsburgh Penguins lost to the Detroit Red Wings 6-3 Wednesday at Little Caesars Arena. The game was both a continuation of one positive trend but also an exacerbation of multiple troubling early-season tribulations that do not bode well for the present or moving forward.
The Penguins’ loss was a showcase for their best players, but hard knocks for their support players.
The Penguins’ top two lines excelled in the first and had legitimate success at points throughout the game. Evgeni Malkin and Reilly Smith continue to dazzle with offensive-zone time, sharp plays, and goals. Malkin scored just 53 seconds into the game after he and Smith executed a jaw-dropping give-and-go.
The star players again rose to the occasion in the third period with a pair of goals and a sustained push, but could not overcome the Red Wings’ 4-1 lead, getting no closer than 4-3.
“I thought it was a good first period. I thought we had a hell of a third period, also. We had a lot of chances,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “We pushed to get back in the hockey game. I thought we just kind of lost ourselves for six or seven minutes in the second period. And they scored a couple of goals on us in that time frame. But for most of the game, I thought our overall team game was pretty good.”
When the Penguins’ top players surged, Detroit didn’t have an answer. The top of the Penguins’ lineup remains as competitive as any in the NHL, and the players remain reliable producers who outperform opponents on a consistent basis.
Sidney Crosby had a 16-2 scoring chance advantage at 5v5. All stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.
The Penguins’ top defensemen were also on their game. Kris Letang has been sharp, though the loss wasn’t his best game of the season. Erik Karlsson has elevated the team’s offensive production, just as president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas hoped when pulling off the Aug. 6 theft.
Karlsson was spectacular in the third period Wednesday.
That’s the good.
The Penguins’ problem: If the top players don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.
Calling the line a non-factor might be kind.
Wednesday morning, Sullivan backed up his bottom lines.
“I think they’ve been a big part of the wins that we’ve had. Obviously, we’d like them to chip in offensively at some point, but I think they’re playing the game the right way,” said Sullivan. “They’re helping us build momentum, They’re defending hard. They’re a big part of the penalty-kill. They’ve had a fair amount of looks. They just haven’t finished on it.”
After a fourth game of being caved-in by the opposition, the third and fourth lines posting about a 33% shot-attempt rate, changes might be brewing, if not now, then soon.
Something has to change sooner than later.
The Penguins’ fourth line was equally unhelpful but also continued a season-beginning trend of being well underwater by allowing six shots and three scoring chances, compared to just four shot attempts (and one high-danger chance — a Jeff Carter first-period breakaway).
Carter was caught gliding in the defensive zone a couple of times, and the speedy Red Wings capitalized with transition chances that could have, perhaps should have, been nipped at the breakout with better positioning or a more aggressive forecheck.
Sullivan did change the lines later in the game, putting Nieto with Eller and O’Connor. As part of the Penguins’ surge, the line had a 6-1 shot attempt advantage in less than four minutes of ice time.
That might be one solution, but the other line still needs a fix.
The Penguins’ third pairing is also proving to be a problem. Chad Ruhwedel and P.O Joseph had a rough day at the office. Both were victimized for prime scoring chances.
“I don’t think it was their best,” said Sullivan. “I thought they allowed some people to get behind them a couple of times. We expect more.”
Daniel Sprong walked Joseph at the defensive blue line early in the first period.
“I don’t really like my first couple of games. I have to regroup a little bit and move from there,” Joseph said.
Fourth-liner Austin Czarnik walked Ruhwedel in the second period.
Both third-pairing defensemen were on the ice for three goals, Ruhwedel for two even-strength tallies and one power play in which David Perron beat him at the front of the net for an easy tap-in goal. Joseph was on the ice for three of Detroit’s first four goals, too.
The Penguins have eight defensemen on the roster, including Ryan Shea and John Ludvig. My gut feeling is that one could get a shot Saturday in St. Louis. Otherwise, why have eight defensemen?
Detroit is fast. The Red Wings are also significantly improved from last season. They can finish chances. And they’re not nearly as soft as they were last season. The Penguins’ second-period walkabout was a killer. Take the glass half-full. The team nearly rallied from down 4-1 in the third period, and Sullivan uncharacteristically noted the failed offside review on Detroit’s first empty-net goal, implying that with more time, he liked his team’s chances to tie the game.
But that’s the point of the Penguins’ problem — When only two lines are working, that means two are not. When things go sideways for the top two lines, albeit for those “six to seven minutes,” the bottom lines are not picking up the slack, nor are they changing the game or momentum.
The third pairing hasn’t been good enough this season, either.
The Penguins are a tale of two teams. The top players and the others. For all of the training-camp competitions, the numbers in the first four games don’t show any improvement for the depth players.
Penguins Report Card:
How do you grade a brilliant opening five minutes and a spectacular third period, but a sloppy second period? The Penguins flexed in the third period, and Detroit didn’t have an answer.
Reilly Smith-Evgeni Malkin: A
The worst you can say about their game together is that they didn’t stop the bleeding in the second period. Otherwise, they have something special. That first-period give-and-go was brilliant.
Erik Karlsson: A+
He took over the third period. His game continues to impress his teammates. Karlsson was the sparkplug that re-fired the Penguins’ intensity and engagement.
“I think it was his best period. (In the) last four games, he’s feeling it. He’s moving his feet,” Malkin said. “I mean, this is Erik Karlsson … he probably can score four, five goals tonight.”
Wow, he is good.
Tristan Jarry: B+
Jarry was very good early in the third period when Detroit went for the kill. He made all of the stops he should have made.
“It wasn’t what we wanted. You don’t want to over-think it too much,” Joseph said. “We have to move by it. Chad and I have been working for a bit now. We need to be better.”
Ruhwedel seemed especially exposed, mistakenly backing into Jarry on Detroit’s second goal and whiffing on Czarnik on Detroit’s first goal.
Drew O’Connor-Lars Eller-Jansen Harkins: D
This is part of Harkins’s audition. He had a couple of moments — his hard forecheck and puck possession in the second allowed him to set up a Grade-A chance for Jake Guentzel.
However, the line remains invisible too often. It’s hard to blame Harkins, but Eller won’t be the one to pay for the line’s lackluster performance. I dare say Harkins’s job is in jeopardy. When Sullivan shortened the bench in the third period, Carter got ice time, but Harkins did not.