The special feeling as they galloped through a 10-game winning streak, spanning a holiday break and additional COVID time off has waned. The question of how good the team can be has been replaced by again asking if the team is good. Regular season results notwithstanding, issues and potential lay at the Pittsburgh Penguins doorstep.
The Penguins will begin the figurative second-half of the season without a win in their last four games. Despite a superior effort against the Washington Capitals before the All-Star break, the Penguins lost in overtime.
The cupcake heavy schedule with the bottom feeders such as the Detroit Red Wings, Arizona Coyotes, and Seattle Kraken will soon be replaced with the top of the Metropolitan Division. More Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, and New York Rangers, finally.
The increased level of competition is likely a positive. The Penguins energy level flatlined over the last few weeks of the first half.
Issue #1: Learning to Play with Malkin
And, yes, much of the struggle began when Evgeni Malkin returned. As I told Josh Rowntree on 93-7 the Fan on Saturday, it’s not Malkin’s fault that opposing forwards are getting behind Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. Or that Evan Rodrigues, Danton Heinen, Kasperi Kapanen, and even Jeff Carter have been conspicuously absent from the scoresheet.
Sidney Crosby has been on the ice for 26 even-strength Penguins goals over the last 30 games. The rest of the team has scored 39. Stats according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
The 26 goals-for is a solid number for the top line, but 39 for the rest? Evgeni Malkin’s line is only one-third of that disappointment and he seems to have the pretty good excuse of shaking 10 months of rink rust.
There is no denying the dynamic changed, as was unavoidable, but the disruption has been even more significant than worst-case scenarios.
No more globetrotter hockey. No more waiting for Malkin to rescue them. And no more high-risk, sloppy play by Malkin and surrounding Malkin. Settling down, playing with Malkin will be the biggest issue.
Issue #2: Net Fronts
One bugaboo has cost the Penguins a couple of games: the front of their net.
Another issue has kept them off the scoreboard in others: the front of the opponent’s net.
The playoff slog is about grimy, greasy hockey. The Pittsburgh Penguins have shown an ability to get there in the offensive zone, and an ability to protect goalie Tristan Jarry in the defensive zone, but both have been inconsistent.
Fortunately, for the Penguins, Jarry has been an umbrella in a rainstorm and bailed them out of more than a few jams.
Issue #3: Kasperi Kapanen
No reason to kick him further. His play and production have to improve.
“I thought the line was pretty good. I thought they had a fair amount of scoring chances. I thought they made pretty good decisions with the puck. And so there wasn’t as much risk associated with their game, which I think is an important aspect of our team game moving forward,” Mike Sullivan said after the Penguins’ OT loss to the Washington Capitals.
More of that, less of the perimeter free-skate.
Issue? Possibility? Contracts
Penguins GM Ron Hextall has deferred public discussion of new contracts for Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Bryan Rust. Hextall said talks are ongoing.
However, as PHN reported more than a week ago with on-the-record comments, serious talks have not yet occurred, at least with Kris Letang. His agent, Phil Lecavalier, expressed a desire to have talks, soon.
Perhaps Hextall has a plan and there isn’t urgency to get anything done. Or, perhaps that plan involves not re-signing two, or maybe all three.
How will a team react if they conclude this is the end? That answer could go to the extreme on each end of the spectrum. IF (if, if, if), they conclude it’s the last ride, it could be a galvanizing rallying cry. Or it could also lead to hurt feelings, disillusionment, and “screw-this-place-itis.”
The Stanley Cup.
I won’t back down from that one. The team has the ability and depth to play with any and every team in the league. It wasn’t a playoff game, but Tristan Jarry was a brick wall in the final minutes of the All-Star Game as the Central Division team pushed. There was even some urgency in the game, at least for a moment.
Jarry and Guentzel helped the 11-member Metro Division squad split $1 million for winning.
Jarry is proving to be a top goalie in the game. A team in the playoffs with a top goalie (we won’t say elite for a couple of years) can do a lot of damage.
His Jedi training will not be complete until he steals a game or two in the playoffs, but then, he will get his just deserves.
And that’s the Pittsburgh Penguins ceiling. We wondered if they would make the playoffs. That question has been answered to almost a certainty. Now it’s about hockey’s second season, and jelling around good hockey, not pond hockey, nor haphazard globetrotter puck management.
Now it’s about reforming the identity that shined brightly just one month ago. The issues, the challenges, and the potential lie ahead.