The Pittsburgh Penguins have been a little bit sideways in 2020. Their struggles began with the loss of Jake Guentzel, just before the new year, but were not improved by the return of Sidney Crosby a couple of weeks later. In fact, as the hockey world braced for the mighty Penguins to finally have their generational talents of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin healthy at the same time, the Penguins may have relied on it too much.
Additional losses including John Marino didn’t help the cause, either.
But the Penguins overcame more severe injuries for months. So, why did getting healthier not lead to greater things, but instead a greater number of questions?
“That’s a good question,” head coach Mike Sullivan responded a few weeks ago before the Penguins struggles became a full-blown dangerous situation.
“I don’t have a good answer for you,” he followed.
And in the lack of an answer to a situation which runs counter to logic, lies the answer. The Pittsburgh Penguins have an identity crisis.
Of course, losing a 40-goal scorer hurts. Of course, losing a top-pairing defenseman doesn’t help. But those losses pale in comparison to missing Crosby for months. And in those Crosby-less months, the Penguins simplified their game. They focused on puck management, speed, tenacity, and in the process, opened up the ice. They scored bunches of goals from within a few feet of the net.
The same was true when they played with Malkin for most of the first month of the season.
As Sullivan was fond of saying on multiple occasions, the adversity “is allowing us to find our identity.”
And without the same adversity shoving the Penguins to simple, honest hockey, they are struggling to maintain the same mindset. Caught between their roster construction, and the long-standing organizational identity to rely on star talent, the Penguins are neither here or there. The Penguins have become neither the honest, gritty team or the powerfully talented team.
“I think every good team hits its rough patch. Usually, the reflex is to try to do more, try to do too much almost,” Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. “Sometimes, you just actually make it worse. I don’t think it’s a lack of effort or commitment or anything like that.”
Even as the Penguins locker room refused to use the word “slump” on Monday, the reality is bigger than merely hitting the post or an unlucky stretch. The Penguins game hasn’t been worthy of many victories. During their six-game losing streak, the Penguins have at times locked down their defensive zone and dominated puck possession.
At the same time, the Penguins have made glaring coverage miscues, and not done nearly enough with their puck possession. The Penguins have struggled to play inside the dots, which was a surprising staple of their first-half play. The Penguins have also not been able to transition ahead of the defenders. Playing on the rush has been limited, too.
“Whether it’s special teams, or obviously mistakes are a big part of it, and we’ve made some big ones,” Crosby said on Monday. “I think it’s been different things. It’s hard to point the finger at one specific thing, but I think putting the puck in the net will give us some breathing room.”
The Penguins could undoubtedly benefit from a few pucks in the net. They’ve been shutout twice in their six-game losing streak and scored more than two goals only once. They’ve clanged a few posts, too.
“For the most part, we’ve had second opportunities in traffic. It will go in,” Crosby assured himself.
The Penguins have had a few second chances, but they haven’t won that battle. When the Penguins had to win that battle to survive, they did. When they couldn’t rely upon a goal from Crosby or Malkin, the team relentlessly tried for the next goal by any means necessary. They crowded the net, desperately fought for pucks, and attacked the puck to generate a transition game.
It was their identity. And the Pittsburgh Penguins must again realize their identity is independent of having both Crosby and Malkin in the lineup, just as it was independent of losing one or both. The Penguins teetered on this fall for weeks because they got away from the things which made them successful.
The Penguins will break their streak sooner than later, but playing to their style will matter more than a win or two. Last season, their lack of identity was their undoing as they stubbornly tried to play a different game. What these Penguins decide to do now, and how they decide to play, will determine their fate.
The Penguins are going through another identity crisis.