The Pittsburgh Penguins have opened the 2023-24 season with five games against teams that missed the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring.
They’ve won exactly two of them.
No surprise, then, that in the immediate aftermath of the Penguins’ 4-2 loss in St. Louis Saturday night, Sidney Crosby offered a succinct rundown of the areas in which they must try to improve before Dallas visits PPG Paints Arena Tuesday at 7:38 p.m. in the start of a four-game homestand.
Or, as Crosby put it, “A lot. Every aspect, I would say.”
OK, so that’s an overstatement, albeit not much of one.
There was, after all, a pronounced upgrade in the play of the No. 3 line during the Blues game, capped by the first goal scored by one of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ bottom-six forwards this season.
“They did a really good job,” Crosby said. “Had some good looks. They were good on the forecheck, (offensive-)zone time and got rewarded there late.”
That reward came in the form of a goal late in the third period by Radim Zohorna, who had replaced Jansen Harkins on the right side of that unit, which includes Lars Eller and Drew O’Connor.
Zohorna was visible pretty much every time he stepped onto the ice, and not only because, at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, he’d be hard to miss under almost any circumstances.
“He did a good job of keeping pucks alive,” Eller said. “He was moving the puck to me or (O’Connor). He was keeping the play going, so I think he did an excellent job of using his body, and he’s got a good head on him. From that standpoint, it was a good step in the right direction.”
But it was the only one the Penguins took on Saturday.
Mike Sullivan made no effort to hide his displeasure when meeting with reporters after the game — “We didn’t play hard enough,” he said. “And we didn’t play smart enough. We got what we deserved.” — which was an uncharacteristic display so early in a season.
Which is not to suggest that every syllable of it wasn’t merited.
Although Sullivan disputed the notion that the Penguins have not consistently attacked opponents’ nets with sufficient vigor, Crosby did not.
“Definitely,” he said. “If you want to score goals, that’s where you have to go. It’s tough to get to those areas, but if you want to have success, you have to do it consistently.
“It’s something we understand is important. For whatever reason — maybe it’s (that it is) the start of the year — it’s a habit that hasn’t been consistently there. We have to find a way to do that.”
Eller offered that the problem actually begins before that, that the Penguins aren’t getting enough pucks to the net.
“We have to get shots through,” he said. “Sometimes, we have guys at the net, but we don’t get the puck there. You need both, at the same time, and we were doing one, or the other. Sometimes, we were getting the puck there and guys weren’t there. Sometimes, guys were there and they’d block it or they’d break up the pass. When those things don’t work, we have to be on the right side of the puck, defensively.”
Which, against the Blues, they were not, more than a few times.
“They capitalized on some of the mistakes we made, like when we don’t execute a pass or a shot gets blocked and they get a two-on-one or a three-on-two because we don’t have that third forward kind of protecting our (defensemen),” Eller said. “That’s an area we have to improve, because that cost us.”
St. Louis took a chokehold on the game during the second period, when it scored the only two goals to swell its lead to 3-1.
Being outproduced during those 20 minutes is becoming a trend for the Penguins, who have been outscored, 6-0, during the second period in their past three games.
“I wasn’t aware of that,” Crosby said. “I don’t think we’re changing anything. But obviously in the second, with it being a long change (to the bench), if you’re not changing well or if you make a mistake, it can add up pretty quickly.”
Kind of like the losses might for the Pittsburgh Penguins if they don’t get their game in order soon.