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What Has Happened to Penguins’ Vaunted Offense?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, NHL trade chatter

The Pittsburgh Penguins have lost five games in a row, and are 1-4-2 in their past seven.

Tristan Jarry, their No. 1 goaltender is injured, and team officials have yet to say when they think he’ll return.

The cornerstone of their defense corps, Kris Letang, has been placed on the non-roster list in the wake of his father’s death. His absence appears to be open-ended, too.

And if the season ended today — which, to be clear, it will not — the Penguins’ only look at playoff hockey would come on TV, as they have slipped into ninth place in the Eastern Conference.

Chuck Noll’s famous assessment of former Steelers running back Sidney Thornton could easily be tweaked to apply to this hockey team: “They have problems, and they are many.”

One of those has been a dearth of secondary scoring.

Much has been made of the negligible offensive contributions they’ve gotten from many of their bottom-six forwards — especially the ones who’ve worked primarily on the No. 3 line — and understandably so.

It’s pretty hard to overlook that Danton Heinen, who scored three times in the first five games, does not have a goal since Oct. 22. That Jeff Carter scored twice during one 27-game stretch. That Teddy Blueger has one goal in 22 games.

Coincidentally enough, Heinen and Carter assisted on Kasperi Kapanen’s goal during the Winter Classic Monday, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ only goal in a 2-1 loss to Boston at Fenway Park.

That was just their latest one-goal defeat; four of their most recent six losses have been by a single goal, and a fifth would have been if New Jersey hadn’t tacked on an empty-net score in its 4-2 victory at PPG Paints Arena last Friday.

Clearly, a few more offensive contributions from members of the third and fourth lines could have had a profound impact on some of those outcomes.

Then again, generating offense is not usually the primary element in the job description of a bottom-six forward.

The bulk of a team’s scoring generally is expected to come from the top two lines, but those units have not been doing that for the Penguins lately, a reality that is reflected in their record during the past few weeks.


*** With 19 goals and 24 assists in 37 games, Sidney Crosby is the only Penguins player averaging better than a point per game. He has, however, been held off the scoresheet for four games in a row, matching the second-longest such streak of his career. (He’s gone point-less in five consecutive games twice.)

*** Evgeni Malkin has four goals and 10 assists in his past 18 games, but hasn’t set up a goal in any of the last six.

*** Jake Guentzel, who entered the season as a strong candidate to get 40 goals — and a dark horse to reach 50 — does not have any in his past seven games, and has put up two goals and two assists in the past nine.

*** Rickard Rakell, who meshed so nicely with Crosby and Guentzel when he was moved onto their line, has not scored in the past six games and has chipped in with only three goals and five assists in the past 13 games.

*** Bryan Rust scored in consecutive games before the NHL’s holiday break, but those are his only goals in the past 10. He has a total of four goals and nine assists in the past 19.

*** Jason Zucker has three goals — two of which came in a span of little more than five minutes during the first period against Detroit a week ago — and five goals in his past 17 games.

Naturally, opponents tend to focus their defensive efforts on containing the Penguins’ top two lines, because that’s where their most dangerous players are deployed. Crosby can expected to be confronted with the other team’s best shutdown defense pairing anytime he reports to work, and opposing coaches routinely assign their best defensive line against him (unless they opt for a head-to-head matchup with their top line).

Nothing new about that. One of the many reasons Crosby is an all-time great has been his ability to consistently overcome the defensive challenges other clubs present to him.

History suggests he’ll break out of his slump soon, perhaps as soon as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ game against Vegas at T-Mobile Arena Thursday night.

But his team will need to have more than one player, or even one line, begin producing as expected to get its season moving in a positive direction again.

And, considering how competitive the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference are, they have to hope that it happens soon.