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Thornberry: Pens Need to Get the Sloppy Play out of Their System Early



Pittsburgh Penguins coaches Mike Sullivan, Mike Vellucci, Todd Reirden
Mike Sullivan: Photo by Michael Miller

Mike Sullivan employs a system that helped to change the NHL and has propelled the Pittsburgh Penguins to two recent championships. Montreal’s resilient speed game should have served as a reminder to the Penguins what made them successful. By paying loose hockey, it’s a shame that the players aren’t letting Sullivan’s process work. 

Sullivan’s squad followed up their sloppy, barn-burner win against the Capitals with an absolutely dreadful loss to the Canadiens. Poor offensive zone support. Irresponsible passes during defensive zone exits. Terrible puck management and just plain bad decision making had a hand in the results at PPG Paints Arena.

Olli Maatta and Jack Johnson looked plodding and confused for most of the night. Evgeni Malkin too tried to skate solo through the entire Montreal team, while the Penguins looked flat footed compared to the speedy, aggressive Montreal.

“We’re a team right now that just wants to score, instead of just playing the game the right way and playing on both sides of the puck. We have to make good line changes. We aren’t even close to where we need to be. That’s what I learned from this game today.” Mike Sullivan after the loss against Montreal.

The possession statistics indicating that the Penguins controlled play are deceptive. At no point did it seem like the Penguins had control of the game. Each Pittsburgh shot seemed to have a Canadiens stick getting in the way. The young Montreal squad is clearly inferior to the star-studded Penguins’, but they implemented a game plan which directly challenged the Penguins.

Sullivan let his team know he wasn’t happy following the game. Putting the six-year veteran Maatta in the press box in favor of Riikola is a stern warning for all.

Saturday, there was no answer to the Habs forecheck and neutral zone disruption. The first two games of the young season have been the antithesis of what has made Sullivan’s Penguins successful. They are still one of the best teams in the league as this start will likely end up being an anomaly, but the continuation from last season needs to change quickly.

The Bad

Olli Maatta, unfortunately, made a great case to insert Juuso Riikola into in the lineup. Barring a last-minute change of heart, Riikola will draw into the lineup, Thursday. Criticizing Maatta for being slow isn’t terribly accurate, but he really has looked out of place after two games. His pairing with Johnson just isn’t working. Poor decisions made Maatta look slow and led to multiple goals Saturday. Riikola will likely get his shot tonight against Vegas. Riikola took line rushes with Jamie Oleksiak all week while Maatta stayed after practice to skate.

Several years ago, Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi lambasted his teammates by calling the carefree, wide-open game “Globetrotter hockey.” Now its back, and it’s working about as well now as it did in the Scuderi days. The Penguins as a team hung Matt Murray out to dry, as well as the entire defense.

The third line of Bryan Rust, Derick Brassard, and Dominik Simon that played so well against Washington played equally as bad against the Canadiens. They provided team low possession numbers, and it wasn’t even close.

The Good

Jake Guentzel really looks like a player ready to break out. Once the team collectively starts getting their heads on straight, and Sidney Crosby starts doing Sidney Crosby things, the sky is the limit for the top line.

Kris Letang is definitely guilty of mistakes thus far, but he has been exciting to watch and looks a lot more like the Letang that fans have come to love. He again appears to be what General Manager Jim Rutherford called, “the straw which stirs the drink.”

It may not be a career year for Letang, but it may end up being one of his best.

Brian Dumoulin has played very well while his teammates floundered. He has been a stabilizing presence during a pair of wild games.

The Concerning

The lamenting of Marc-Andre Fleury’s departure has already started. It is difficult to truly gauge Murray’s performance considering how the players in front of him have played, but enough has happened to plant seeds of doubt. A strong performance against Fleury and the Golden Knights would have been the ideal confidence builder, but given Murray’s recent concussion, this will not be an option.

The Penguins played on Saturday with the level of disinterest that they were criticized for at times last year. For all of the talk about having a chip on their shoulder, Montreal looked like they wanted to win more than a team chasing the ‘dynasty’ label.

The Outlook

The Penguins will be fine. Murray, Johnson, and the third line will be fine. The Maatta situation may be a different story entirely.

Nothing that has happened in the first two games should change anyone’s feelings about Sullivan’s club. Given their history, it may seem silly that this team needs to find their identity, but that is exactly what is happening. New faces adjusting to new roles takes a bit of time. Now if we are having this discussion after 40 games, then go ahead and push that panic button.

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