TAMPA, Fla — The maddening, gray-hair-inducing inconsistency of the Pittsburgh Penguins has many answers and no answers all at once.
There aren’t enough fingers to point out all of the blame.
On one night, center Evgeni Malkin can electrify the crowd, but a defenseman might lose his bearings, and an opponent swoops past for a go-ahead goal.
On one night, Erik Karlsson can distribute the puck like a magician, creating offense and pushing the Penguins’ attack forward. Yet a few mistakes by the forwards leave the goalie exposed for a go-ahead goal.
Or the power play can go 0-for-5 in a one-goal game.
Besides Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, who lead the NHL in even-strength scoring, the other players exempt from recent criticisms are the goalies Tristan Jarry and Alex Nedeljkovic. The Penguins netminders have been outstanding for weeks, including a few Metro Division losses.
Jarry is 2-1-2 in his last five games, allowing just 11 goals and posting a .935 save percentage. He also leads the league with three shutouts this season. That’s not bad work for a guy who was a primary scapegoat during the 3-6-0 start.
Alex Nedelkovic was very good on Monday, too. He has a .937 save percentage.
Imagine Penguins goalies stopping that many pucks and wins being hard to come by. Believe it or not, the Penguins are 8-4-3 in their last 15 after the teeth-grinding overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Is that a turnaround?
“The standard is very high in Pittsburgh, and nobody has higher expectations than us,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “And so we’re trying to build a game and build an identity that can bring us more consistent success. We’re 20-something games in and hovering around .500, and we believe we have a better group than that. And we’re capable of more.”
Through it all, it seems no one feels the Penguins have yet found firm footing. They remain just above .500, at 11-10-3, but the record also means more losses than wins.
In a sign of how messy the Eastern Conference standings have become, the Penguins are just two points out of a playoff spot, four points behind the Carolina Hurricanes for second place, but just five points out of the Metro Division cellar.
Yet, does anyone feel good about the Penguins’ trajectory?
2. Where is Sidney Crosby’s Hart Trophy talk?
Seriously, where is it? Has any player done more for his team this season than Crosby carrying the offense of a struggling team and nights willing them to a better result? However, Crosby no longer leads the NHL in even-strength points. Nope.
That honor now belongs to Crosby’s linemate. Guentzel leads the NHL with 25 EV points, and Crosby is second as Artemi Panarin, David Pastrnak, and Nikita Kucherov follow the Penguins’ dynamic duo.
It’s not hard to extrapolate Crosby’s statistics if the Penguins’ power play clicked at more than 10.4%.
3. Penguins Power Play fix a matter of heart?
Bryan Rust had a pretty response to being asked if the Penguins were doing enough to get to the net front.
“I think if you want to make it happen, it doesn’t matter who’s on the ice,” Rust said. “You can have a bunch of 3-foot-2 people. You can have a bunch of 6-foot-6 people. It doesn’t really matter. If you want to do it, you’ll be able to do it.”
The problem with Rust’s assessment, and everyone else’s, is that the Penguins’ power play has also struggled to establish zone time and offensive zone pressure. The net-front presence is the end of the broken chain.
Guentzel, Rust, and Crosby have filled the net-front role for several years. Unless they’ve forgotten how to score, the problems are larger and more significant.
Whether the power play has 6-foot-6 bodies or not, the struggles are not a matter of heart.
With the worsening results, changes, and worsening results, it’s become a mental block. Overthinking followed by paralysis. Even the most simple parts, such as breakouts and zone entries, have become a grind.
The greater the struggles, the more emboldened the penalty kill. The more emboldened the penalty kill, the greater the pressure. And the mental block cycle becomes self-perpetuating.
Perhaps a few wins will lead to power play success? But the pressure inside the Penguins room is palpable. The hoots and hollers of the boys when times are good are not there right now. Plenty of guys are wearing it on their faces.
The power play failures are having an adverse effect on the team. Recall a couple of weeks ago when PHN asked Sullivan if the power play struggles bled to even strength, and he gave a firm yes.
Success or changes. Something has to give, and soon.