“I don’t know. That’s a good question,” Pittsburgh Penguins winger Bryan Rust conceded on Tuesday night after his team again played an incomplete or inconsistent game but earned two points.
Is there a danger to winning and consistently being rewarded for less than their best? Which is more critical at this point in the season, the process or result?
The Penguins have won 17 of 19 games, but the back half of the stretch has not resembled the crisp, passionate hockey that led to a 10-game winning streak before the Penguins embarked on a six-game road trip through Philadelphia and the Western Conference. The team was 4-2-0 on the trip, but the level of hockey declined.
“We know it’s not our best hockey,” Jeff Carter said last week.
A week later, the Penguins haven’t lost, but they’re still not playing their best hockey, either. The Penguins beat the Winnipeg Jets despite being outplayed for most of the game. They scored two goals in nine seconds, then won in a shootout. The Penguins trailed Columbus on Friday night before a comeback win and trailed the Vegas Golden Knights 3-0 before a furious late rally netted two points.
Pittsburgh Penguins Past
More than a few teams have been rolled through the regular season, stacking wins, and were returned to sender when the playoffs began. The President’s Trophy curse isn’t so much a curse but a realization that winning in the regular season is different than wining under the bright lights and intensity of the NHL playoffs.
The Tampa Bay Lightning stumbled through the 2019 regular season with wins on top of wins. The scrappy Columbus Blue Jackets sent them home in four games.
The Pittsburgh Penguins maturity bled through the answers.
“Maybe a little bit, but I think everybody involved from the coaching staff on down knows that it’s not our best and it’s not going to cut it down the line. But I think it shows something good for our group that we can find ways to win those games. I think we just can’t get too big of a head about it,” Rust said.
Great shot, kid. Don’t get cocky.
In fairness, Rust’s answer surprised me just a little. It was perfect, actually.
“And we’ve got to look at games realistically and say, ‘Hey, this wasn’t our best. This isn’t how you do it,’ but good marks on us for winning the game,” concluded Rust. “I think that’s been the message here over the past few games that we’ve won that maybe we didn’t have our best. I think that will continue to be the message if we don’t play good for 60 minutes or play the way that we want to play.”
The 2019 Penguins also fall under that category as they stumbled through wins down the stretch and were home in four games. Perhaps a few other Penguins teams in the Sidney Crosby era fit the bill, too. The Dan Bylsma Penguins era had a few teams with lots of regular-season wins, which otherwise laid an egg in the postseason.
They believed they would keep winning, but their flaws were exposed, and the regular-season winning, coupled with past success, perhaps inoculated the Penguins against genuinely improving.
PHN also put the question to head coach Mike Sullivan. Is there a danger to winning, thus being rewarded for “not (their) best” hockey? Is it an invitation for bad habits to take root?
“There can be. If you don’t have a realistic assessment of where your team is at, and that’s part of our responsibility as the coaching staff–to make sure we see things objectively. We have honest conversations with our players on what our expectations are of ourselves. We talk a lot about the standard and what it means to be a Pittsburgh Penguin and living up to those expectations every day,” Sullivan said.
Winning can cover a lot of warts. It was interesting to hear an NHL head coach acknowledge winning could be a problem and that it was his job to pop a few balloons, figuratively speaking.
And Rust was on the same page.
And yes, this discussion is incomplete without indirectly tying the Penguins’ sloppy play to the return of Evgeni Malkin, which occurred on the west coast trip. The Penguins haven’t been the same, but they’re also able to out-talent teams while they figure it out, too.
Malkin had one shot and two points on Tuesday night. He has nine points (3-6-9) in eight games.
The Penguins aren’t playing anything close to their best hockey, but they now trail the New York Rangers by one point with a game in hand for the top spot in the Metro Division and trail the Florida Panthers by four points for the President’s Trophy.
Maybe the correct answer is that it’s better to win the games but acknowledge the shortcomings rather than lose. It’s a tight rope to walk. A loss or two more easily provides the right motivation to fix the problems.
Lest the players begin to believe their own press or be happy with the win, Mike Sullivan is on it.