CRANBERRY — The Pittsburgh Penguins have no doubts about how high they can lift their game.
Not when they’ve done it a number of times during the first 44 games this season.
What they can’t seem to figure out is why they’ve failed to perform at an acceptable level on a fairly regular basis, which is the main reason they’ll reach the NHL’s all-star break sitting outside of the Eastern Conference playoff field.
“If anybody had an answer, it probably would have been solved by now,” Bryan Rust said after practice Thursday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “It’s hard to put a finger on one thing. Who knows what’s really the catalyst behind it?”
Even so, he’s confident about the chances of the Penguins playing to their potential during the remaining 38 games.
“It’s there,” Rust said. “We’ve all seen it. You guys have seen it. You’ve seen us play fantastic games and you’ve seen us play horse(bleep) games, for lack of a better word.”
Actually, that description might qualify as charitable, if applied to the Penguins’ 5-2 loss at Arizona Monday. While they’ve plunged to some troubling depths over the course of the past three-plus months, that might have been the nadir.
So far, anyway.
But even if it was the worst, it hardly was the only bad one.
If it had been, the Penguins (21-17-6) wouldn’t be bobbing along around .500 heading into home games against Florida Friday and Montreal Saturday.
Their outlook was considerably more promising a week ago, when the Pittsburgh Penguins were body-surfing the momentum of an impressive 60-minute showing in a 3-0 victory against Seattle. That performance suggested they had hit upon the formula needed to succeed this season, and embraced it.
However, it proved to be as much of a mirage as anything the Penguins subsequently saw during their time in the deserts of Nevada and Arizona because, after two solid periods in Las Vegas last Saturday, they self-immolated for the balance of that game and the one that followed against the Coyotes.
“I would argue, actually, that the first 40 minutes against Vegas, we were the better team,” said Lars Eller, who is on pace to appear in his 1.000th NHL game Saturday. “We didn’t give them much, but we gave them enough to lose. And Arizona was just a bad game, overall. That you have to move on from.”
And they have to do it quickly. It would be unduly dramatic to characterize the next two games as “must-win,” but the Penguins are five points out of the final wild-card spot in the East, and that gap could grow if Detroit takes a point or two from Philadelphia Thursday night.
Recognizing the value of the consistency they seek is easy; actually attaining it can be much tougher.
“Consistency, with any team in the league, is something that’s always a challenge,” Sidney Crosby said. “I think that if it was easy, teams would be going to the playoffs, cruising every year. It doesn’t happen that way. Everyone goes through different ups and downs. Look at Edmonton: They’ve won 14 in a row and couldn’t win a game at the start of the year.”
The Oilers, who were 5-12-1 in their first 18 games, are an extreme example, but Crosby’s point defies contention. Every team is going to have off-nights and bad stretches over the course of 82 games; the key variables are how often they occur and how long they last.
While these Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t likely to run off 14 victories in a row, they do believe several stretches, including the 10-3-3 run that preceded the game in Las Vegas, are evidence they are capable of accumulating points in bunches.
“What makes me confident is the way we played when we played at our best,” Eller said. “We had five (victories) in a row in November. We had 10 out of whatever here up until the last two games. So I know the highest level we’re capable of playing at is good enough to beat everyone.
“But we have to come together and do it much more consistently. I think it’s just a matter of commitment, hunger and the mental preparation, no matter who you’re playing. I know we have the capability in this room and I believe we still have the hunger. But we have to go and show it.”
Ideally, from the Penguins’ perspective, they will begin to do that no later than Friday, when the Panthers visit PPG Paints Arena at 7:08 p.m., and Saturday, when the Canadiens stop by for the final game before the all-star break.
“Obviously, they’re important,” Crosby said. “You want to feel good going into the break. With the games-in-hand that we have, we’ve got to grab some points here, have some urgency. … Every single point is important from here on in.”