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The Penguins Are Shaken; Admit Second-Guessing, Need to Be ‘More Driven’



Pittsburgh Penguins, Bryan Rust, Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ flaws were displayed like antique diamonds at Christie’s Auction House. They were brilliantly laid out beneath the bright lights of PPG Paints Arena Monday night as the Penguins again had a full period of momentum, again gave away a full period, and again tried to protect a lead with wide-open hockey in a 4-2 loss to the New York Islanders.

Once in a while can be forgiven if not ignored.

But seemingly more often than not?

Monday morning, PHN chatted with winger Jason Zucker. Against the Islanders, Zucker was in the middle of the late second-period fracas that sent 10 players to the penalty box and electrified the PPG Paints Arena crowd.

He received a 10-minute misconduct. He was not present for another third-period meltdown, but his words proved prophetic, even as they can be read as calling out his team’s motivation or intensity.

As I spoke with Zucker, his words didn’t immediately land with a loud impact, but as I walked away, they grew in stature and importance.

“We need to stay on the same page as a unit, everyone on the ice. And I think a big thing for us is momentum,” Zucker told PHN. “Trying to get momentum, and when we get it, try to keep it. … Those are things that I think we could be a little bit better at, especially with our team and how deep we are as a lineup. There are times that we could be a little bit more driven to either get that momentum back or keep it when we have it.

“You know, it’s easier said than done, but that’s something that we can definitely be better at.”

Did Zucker just say the Penguins need to be more driven?

He did.

The Penguins had all of the momentum in the first period Monday. They outshot New York 19-7.

In keeping with the script, New York pushed in the second period, and the Penguins did not wrestle momentum away. New York flipped most of the period and had eight high-danger chances.

When you accept as fact Zucker’s words, the package that is the riddle of the 2022-23 Pittsburgh Penguins begins to unfold. It might seem inexplicable that a team with a trio of Hall of Famers, a few more who are All-Stars, and a lineup built with nary a thought of the future is not driven.

Yet the words so perfectly encapsulated the Penguins’ emotional fragility and inability to reverse a game going against them.

Zucker’s words grew from off-the-cuff explanation to full indictment. Then the Pittsburgh Penguins proved him right with a loss that followed the usual script, complete with an obvious twist ending.

A 2-1 third period lead with 13 minutes remaining and a 40-26 shot advantage became a 4-2 loss.

How can a team led by Sidney Crosby, coached by Mike Sullivan, and facing the end of their playoff streak lack drive in any situation?

Penguins Confidence Rattled?

“I think (the team’s game) is what we have to believe in. And that’s what’s discouraging sometimes when we play that way, and we don’t get the win, and you start to second guess yourself or team and what we’re doing,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said Monday morning. “But we realize if we play that way, then we know we can get the results.”

OK. Add second-guessing to the lack of drive.

The Penguins are outside the playoff seeds, and others have caught them.

“Heh. You have no choice. You have to believe in the group that we have,” Kris Letang said with a shrug. “We have a group with tons of experience, guys who know how to win and guys who know how to find ways to win. We’ve got to stick with it, and eventually, we’ll get out of this.”


Social Media Noise?

After the crushing losses over the weekend (and again Monday), the social media uproar was vociferously ugly. Everyone from ownership to elevator operators were called to account, with GM Ron Hextall, Sullivan, and third-line Jeff Carter earning the most personal attacks.

In each game, opponents scored shortly after a Penguins goal.

And it was Carter’s line that was on the ice for the immediate response goals in both ends of the back-to-back losses against New York and Jersey Friday and Saturday.

And it was Sullivan who put them there.

And it was Hextall who dished a 35+ contract to Carter and a multi-year contract to Kasperi Kapanen, both significantly hampering the Penguins’ ability to make changes. “Bloodthirsty” would only be a slight exaggeration to describe the near-unanimous public outcry.

Surely the Penguins hear it?

None of the handful of players polled admitted to checking social media over the weekend.

“No, I mean, it’s just we just know it’s mainly in the locker room, and we don’t really care about (social media),” Jake Guentzel said. “We know we believe that we have something special in this locker room, and we kind of just stick with what we have in here, and we just go from there.”

It’s probably best if they stay off social media for a few more days, too.