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Penguins Win, But That Wasn’t Close to Good Enough; Who Will Change Things?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Mike Sulivan

The Pittsburgh Penguins are the best version of themselves, at least on paper, with the veteran lineup that GM Ron Hextall assembled, beginning with new contracts and extensions last summer. The Penguins began the season as the NHL’s oldest team, just ahead of the crumbling Washington Capitals, who likely will miss the playoffs.

The Penguins beat the Flyers Saturday for just their fourth regulation win in the past 17 home games. (That stat comes from Penguins historian and noted good guy Bob Grove.)

Let that sink in. Four regulation wins in 17 home games.

Of equal issue is the Penguins’ ability to play with energy or consistency. “We just have to …” sounds easy enough, but after five months, perhaps the word “just” should be removed from that sentence.

Although the Penguins fell behind, 4-0, to the Columbus Blue Jackets and trailed, 4-1, after two periods Tuesday, noted Penguins spark plug Jason Zucker downplayed any theatrics between periods.

“We don’t have too many guys who would be breaking sticks and doing stuff like that in the room (during the second intermission),” he said. “We knew that wasn’t good enough. We’re a veteran group. We know what we need to be doing.”

Perhaps the paying public that sticks around without cause or concern for traffic enjoys the extra time when games extend beyond the third period, but it speaks poorly of the Penguins’ ability to close out games.

Very poorly.

Captain Sidney Crosby has five points in his last three games. If his play can’t inspire the team, who will be the person to change things? Is there a player or players in the room capable of awakening the team from this lethargic march to Game 82?

Saturday, the Penguins squashed the hapless Philadelphia Flyers, 5-1, with three of those goals coming in the final 5:36. The first 55 minutes should serve as another reminder that this team has trouble playing with passion, even if they were somewhat pleased with that output.

“Yeah, I thought it was pretty good,” Zucker said. “I think we have another level, but I thought it was pretty good.”

Before the final five minutes, however, I’ll go ahead and disagree with Zucker. The game was, at best, a below-average performance.

We’ve seen what this team can do when they’re engaged and aggressive. See the first two periods against the New York Islanders and the third period against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Penguins had every opportunity to bury the going-through-the-motions Flyers, who have now lost 15 of their last 19. Instead, they squeaked by.

Hey, at least they hung onto the third-period lead.

“What we were saying before the third period is to try to be on the same page,” Rickard Rakell said. “And I think that paid off, and yeah, we had a game plan whenever they pulled the goalie, and it paid off in our favor.”

Perhaps these Penguins are too experienced. As we’ve opined, this team knows the sun will also rise. There will be another game. Another chance.

Except those chances are fleeting. The sun is setting.

And the Penguins’ desperation is clearly not inversely proportional to the dwindling opportunity to capture this season and make the most of it.

The Penguins have only gotten older after the NHL trade deadline and, if social media posts are to be believed, have become the oldest team in NHL history, with an average age of 30.95 years. And yet the most experienced team in the NHL has struggled with consistency and been the most porous team with third-period leads.

After 65 games, the team is …

No, there is no finish to that sentence.

It is also time to inject some desperation into the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineup. Find it. Anywhere.

Drew O’Connor has grabbed his chance and become a different player than he’s shown in three years of taking the mind-numbing I-80 shuttle between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre.

Alex Nylander has also grabbed the bull’s horns and lasted more than seven seconds in his first NHL games in three years.

“I thought Alex play really well. … You can see his offensive instincts,” coach Mike Sullivan said Saturday. “He sees it pretty good out there. He can make plays, but I’ve just been impressed with his details away from the puck in his own zone.”

But lest you think there are more players hiding in the AHL, the WBS Penguins have scored 13 even-strength goals in their last 17 games. Agitating and heavy forward Nathan Legare is still finding his professional legs and isn’t a serious contender for NHL ice.

Filip Hallander and Valtteri Puustinen aren’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard. Neither impressed during training camp or the preseason.

The Penguins failed to finish against the New York Islanders. They failed to start against the Columbus Blue Jackets and neither started nor finished against the Florida Panthers last Saturday.

Sure, the Penguins won Saturday. They padded, or at least preserved, their lead over the Ottawa Senators, who began Saturday just four points behind them with a March 20 showdown looming.

But maybe it is time to break things or otherwise hit the ice and play with the passion and energy befitting a desperate hockey team. A win shouldn’t obfuscate the blinding truth the team still isn’t reaching its potential.

The New York Rangers await on Sunday. A Penguins win puts them in the conversation for third place and a playoff date against New Jersey instead of Boston or Carolina. A loss all but ends those hopes.

Perhaps in the next 24 hours, something will change. Something has to change. This just isn’t good enough.