The Pittsburgh Penguins have the talent to overcome a lot of things.
Except, perhaps, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Their 5-2 loss to Toronto Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena was a microcosm of their past 10 or so games: A few offensive outbursts and a lot of listless play.
They’ve made a habit of showing that they can perform at an extremely high level, and also that they can be like a club that showed up for the game only because it had contractual obligations.
That’s a big part of the reason they have slipped back below NHL .500 (6-7-2) and remain marooned outside what would be the Eastern Conference playoff field.
“We’ve got to get some consistency,” Jason Zucker said. “We have to start playing a full 60 (minutes),”
Such up-and-down play from period-to-period, and sometimes shift-to-shift, can be toxic for a team that looks like it will have to struggle mightily to extend its 16-year streak of playoff appearances.
The Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Bryan Rust line had the latest in a series of subpar performances, and the top defense pairing of Kris Letang and Marcus Pettersson had a night to forget, too.
As flawed a stat as plus-minus can be, it’s hard to misinterpret the minus-19 for which those five players combined.
Crosby’s line has sputtered of late, which is uncharacteristic for a unit that has a long history of having the better of play when it’s on the ice.
“They’ve been such a good line for us for so long,” Mike Sullivan said. “The last few games, it’s been a bit of a struggle for them. … The standards are so high, the expectations are so high, because they’ve been such a good line for so long. They usually control the game for the majority of the time they’re out there.”
True enough, but that hasn’t been the case lately. And while the Penguins have gotten strong play from the No. 2 line, which has Evgeni Malkin between Zucker and Rickard Rakell, they need to have Crosby’s group performing at a higher level than it has recently.
“We just need to be better,” Guentzel said. “Plain and simple, it’s not good enough right now.”
The victory was a triumphant return for Toronto goalie Matt Murray, who played his first game here since being traded to Ottawa in 2020. He stopped 35 of 37 shots.
Teddy Blueger, who spent the first 15 games of the season on the Long-Term Injured list, was activated a few hours before the game and made his 2022-23 debut in his customary spot in the middle of the Penguins’ fourth line. He logged 12 minutes of ice time, 25 seconds of which were spent killing penalties, and won six of 11 faceoffs.
“I thought Teddy was really good,” Sullivan said. “He was sound, defensively. He had poise with the puck.”
The Maple Leafs went in front to stay when they took a 2-0 lead during the opening period, after two of their most dangerous forwards were allowed to get off uncontested shots.
John Tavares opened the scoring at 12:04, when he beat Casey DeSmith from high on the right side of the slot for his 400th goal in the NHL and Mitch Marner swept a shot past DeSmith at 15:04 after being left unchecked at the top of the crease.
“No reason for (the poor start),” Zucker said. “We didn’t start sharp.”
Michael Bunting made it 3-0 11 seconds into the middle period, but that goal seemed to get the Penguins’ attention, and Rakell (54 seconds) and Crosby (2:38) beat Murray to whittle the Maple Leafs’ lead to 3-2.
But Murray produced several quality stops, including one on a Kris Letang backhander from close range with 8:14 to go before the second intermission, and Bunting deflected in a Pontus Holmberg feed with 49.7 seconds left in the period to all but put the game out of reach.
Toronto’s William Nylander closed out the scoring with an empty-net goal with 2:23 to go in regulation, as the Penguins fell to 2-7-2 in their past 11 games after a 4-0-1 start.
“We have to be better,” Zucker said. “It’s as simple as that.”