The Pittsburgh Penguins are approaching the moment when they can no longer blame the early season or jelling for absent-minded mistakes. The issues that have haunted the Penguins for a year, such as inconsistent effort and yielding odd-man rushes, were intensely displayed Saturday.
They finally got a noticeably strong game from their third line, including recall Radim Zohorna, but it was the top players who tried too hard to create offense and were on the wrong end of three-on-two and two-on-one breaks. Pittsburgh native Brandon Saad ripped a couple of goals and could have had more. Penguins castoff Kasperi Kapanen was motivated, and the St. Louis Blues converted their chances for a 4-2 win at Enterprise Center.
St. Louis got a lot of odd-man rushes.
Way too many.
The Penguins sloppiness was a foodbank for the underfed St. Louis forwards, who have struggled to score this season. Despite coach Mike Sullivan calling a timeout after a pair of quick goals against earlier in the second period, St. Louis again had numbers on the rush and almost scored against the Penguins’ top line with Sidney Crosby on the subsequent shift.
That was the Penguins game in a nutshell.
The energy was not lacking, but once again, what Sullivan would call attention to detail and defensive responsibility were conspicuous by their absence. For the second straight game, the Penguins attempted to overcome a 4-1 deficit with a furious comeback, but only Zohorna scored in the third period.
It’s a new team. Many new faces. But they’re quickly running out of excuses for those types of games.
“We gave them way too many chances off the rush because we didn’t play with the purpose that we need to play with in the offensive zone, with the puck or without it,” Sullivan said.
New players are not why the team is losing. Erik Karlsson and Reilly Smith are not the culprits. Nay, they’re both playing quite well. It’s a team-wide breakdown of experienced players not covering their duties and depth players failing to fulfill their roles.
As much as the new players want to say the Penguins system is nothing new, one player admitted this week it’s quite different, and he was still learning it. While true, that doesn’t excuse the Penguins veterans’ continued mistakes.
The forwards and defensemen are not in sync. As Karlsson charged the offensive zone on nearly every shift, the Penguins forwards were not covering. The F3 is supposed to cycle high, but that wasn’t always the case. The typically responsible Crosby was not innocent, either. Or, when F3s stayed high, St. Louis attacked the lonely forward at the top of the zone.
According to Pittsburgh Sportsnet, the Blues had seven odd-man rushes in the first two periods. It sure seemed like more. St. Louis was able to counterattack, and the Penguins were chasing them up the ice after overcommitting.
Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card
Odd-man rushes. Penalties. Lost assignments on the backcheck. Lack of urgency.
Coach Mike Sullivan ripped his team afterward, “We got what we deserved.”
It was a sloppy effort that Sullivan admitted lacked urgency.
Penguins Third Line (O’Connor-Eller-Zohorna): A+
The bright spot.
Lars Eller’s line has been ineffective, but they dominated the puck Saturday. They had 14 shot attempts and allowed just two. They got nine shots on goal and allowed just one. The line also had seven scoring chances compared to just one against. Most importantly, Radim Zohorna scored at the net front.
Zohorna was an upgrade to the recently waived Jansen Harkins, and it seemed to make a significant difference, especially in the offensive zone. Zohorna retrieved the puck, moved the puck, and kept moving when away from the puck.
Zohorna’s xGF (expected goals for %) was an astounding 93%.
I don’t think you’ll see Crosby’s line play a worse game all year. The line struggled to cover for Erik Karlsson, instead crashing the low zone. The line was a minus-2, and that tracks with the obvious defensive breakdown.
If Crosby has a bad game, the team can’t crumble as it did. They generated four high-danger chances but didn’t convert. The line gave up six high-danger chances against, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
Erik Karlsson: C
He pinched and roamed on every shift (if not EVERY shift, then it seemed like most). Sometimes, discretion is the better part of valor. Things were going sideways, and instead of simplifying, Karlsson pressed.
That was Karlsson doing too much.
Ryan Shea-Chad Ruhwedel:
Shea was just fine. He made a couple of solid plays on the puck in the offensive zone.
Ruhwedel was skipped for a shift or two in the first period after Jakub Vrana undressed him on the rush. Ruhwedel isn’t playing great hockey to start the season, and he’s been exposed one-on-one. Ruhwedel might get a passing grade, but not a good one.
They attempted eight shots, avoiding an F. However, they were scored on and gave up a couple of odd-man rushes. That cannot happen to a fourth line.
The Penguins continue to lack a fourth line that can contribute the things most essential that a bottom trio can consistently give: energy and momentum.
After five games, there are no signs of life. I’ll stick by my column earlier this week. It’s time to carry only seven defensemen, recall Sam Poulin to be the fourth-line center, move Jeff Carter to the press box, and move Accaiari to the wing.
As Sullivan said, “We got what we deserved.” If additional changes are not forthcoming, the Penguins will continue to have the same issues, and that sentiment will apply in a much broader context.
Tristan Jarry: A
The Penguins goalie was brilliant, and the vexing result shouldn’t overshadow that the game could have been lopsided if not for a handful of great saves. He was hung out to dry but kept his team close.