For every good game, there is a clunker. For every run, there is a slide and for every moment of optimism, there is a cause for doubt. The Pittsburgh Penguins are not making their journey easy.
In the question over who or what this team is, the answer is quite simple: they are precisely what they’ve shown. Don’t look for hope and don’t look for failure–simply look.
Are they the team which beat the Tampa Bay Lighting or were pasted by the New Jersey Devils? That question will drive fans mad. One need not choose between those two choices. The answer is, yes.
Last night, Matt Murray echoed what the Penguins coaches have been saying, “We need more,” he said. When asked to clarify if he meant effort or execution, he replied, “Both.”
The Toronto Maple Leafs also beat the Penguins, Saturday. That was a big game–or should have been. It was a Saturday night in Toronto on Hockey Night in Canada. For football fans, that’s the equivalent of what Monday Night Football used to be (before there were NFL games all over the calendar).
The Penguins are not capable of consistent play or production. If they were able, the Penguins would have shown as much over the last two seasons. Instead, the Penguins have treated themselves and the organization to a roller coaster ride which Six Flags would deem unsafe.
It’s also an oversimplification to classify their effort or lack of effort as playing down to their competition. Toronto is ahead of them. Carolina is within striking distance, and even more so now.
The team is missing defenseman Justin Schultz and star center, Evgeni Malkin. So naturally, they should have a little extra trouble scoring goals until at least Malkin returns. When they get Schultz back, they will have a little more kick on the backend, too. But that doesn’t excuse a lack of effort, sloppiness or inability play well.
Few teams are blessed with such talent. Those teams don’t get a pass for a pile of bad performances. Why should the Penguins?
The Penguins should be a dominant team. They have a big-game goaltender, a defenseman who should be under more serious consideration for the Norris trophy, and a pair of all-time centermen. They have a top line which is the envy of most in hockey.
The Penguins inconsistent production is a matter of want. The Penguins have an older, established core which finally earned more championship hardware. Just as Chicago and LA found, it’s almost impossible to keep a championship core together into their 30’s and stay hungry.
“We have to play 60 minutes. We have to be invested with 20 guys,” said Kris Letang, who is one of the few players above questioning consistent effort.
Check out the full Letang video below.
So, which players aren’t invested? The term “invest” and “buy-in” have been used a lot lately. That strikes me as odd. If there are players who aren’t invested or who aren’t buying in, surely the Penguins can find other homes for them. Or seats in the press box.
The middle of the Penguins lineup also continues to be an impediment.
Tuesday night, Tanner Pearson didn’t have a shot attempt. His last goal was Jan. 11. This season, the former LA Kings wunderkind has only 14 points in 54 games split between the Penguins and Kings. In 37 games with the Penguins, he has just 13 points (5g, 9a).
Phil Kessel wasn’t a peach, either. The Penguins second line had only three scoring chances and no high-danger chances. None. Kessel vanished from sight after his first period turnover led to the Carolina goal.
Kessel was outstanding Friday night. According to head coach Mike Sullivan, the Penguins second line led by Kessel and centered by Bjugstad, “had their moments,” Saturday night but “weren’t as dominant,” as they were Friday.
Especially without Malkin in the lineup, the Penguins sorely need the best from Kessel. For those who worry about advanced stats, this season Kessel has a 46 percent Corsi rating despite starting more than 60 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone.
Whether with Malkin, Derick Brassard, now Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann, the Penguins desperately need middle lines to connect their hyper-successful top line anchored by Sidney Crosby to their premier fourth line led by Matt Cullen.
It isn’t always about talent — for example, Garrett Wilson. The scrappy can-do journeyman has helped the Penguins fourth line to create offense, even as he remains goalless in his career. Again last night, the Penguins fourth line created more scoring chances (4) than they yielded (2) and applied offensive pressure.
Effort and execution go hand-in-hand. For a team which is well schooled, want-to will mean execution. The Penguins need to find it–or find players who have it.
This season might well be the Penguins last best chance. There isn’t room for players who aren’t buying-in or who don’t want it. It doesn’t matter their salary, jersey sales or their history. Effort and execution aren’t optional.