Saturday afternoon could be the last time hockey reporters are allowed in an NHL locker room this season to ask pointed questions in an informal atmosphere and try to get something akin to real answers. Because of coronavirus fears, the NHL issued a memorandum on Saturday during the Pittsburgh Penguins dreadful 5-2 loss to the arch-rival Washington Capitals which effectively closed NHL locker rooms to media until further notice.
The great loss will be honest assessments without sugar or temperance from Penguins star center Evgeni Malkin. Once you get past Malkin’s broken English, in bad times, Malkin’s words usually have the weight of a hard right hand followed by a block of ice.
In his halting style, Malkin attempted to answer the burning question of the Pittsburgh Penguins season. What the hell happened to the rigidly structured, ambitious team which steamrolled through opponents despite missing their best players? And how did this pillowy soft, disorganized Boy Scout troop take its place?
“We’re having a little bit of bad luck right now,” Evgeni Malkin said, but he was just getting to the heart of the matter. “We need to work on that; “Dumo” is back. (John) Marino is back. Everyone is back. Now we’re a healthy team. We need to start working.”
The Penguins record until the last few weeks belied their shaky play. It was just three weeks ago when they charged into first place, but even then head coach Mike Sullivan admitted frustration as the Penguins drifted from their simple, honest identity.
The hockey gods dealt the Penguins a massive blow on Dec. 30 when they claimed 40-goal winger Jake Guentzel for the remainder of the season. But the captain and all-time great Sidney Crosby returned to the Penguins on Jan. 14. Then GM Jim Rutherford did his abracadabra, presto-chango thing in February and produced Jason Zucker without giving up an NHL asset.
The Penguins remained inconsistent and teetered on disaster, which finally hit two weeks ago. The Penguins ultimately climbed to first place then hit a freefall with six straight losses. They won a pair of games against creampuffs Ottawa and Buffalo and were then spanked by the Washington Capitals on Saturday.
“It starts with the power play. It starts with my line, every line. I’m not liking my game right now,” Malkin said. “We’re looking at each other. We’re trying to play easy. That’s not our game.”
That’s a lot of blame and acceptance in one sentence.
PHN asked Mike Sullivan what he thought of Malkin’s comments.
“Well, you know that I’ve said all along here the challenge for us as we get healthy is to make sure that we maintain a clear understanding of how we’ve had success and the identity that we’ve built here,” Sullivan responded. “And it’s rooted in simplicity. It’s rooted in a straight-ahead game where we can leverage off with speed.”
The Penguins have been struggling to get more than 30 shots on net per game. In the first half of the season, the Penguins peppered goalies. The Penguins were also one of the highest-scoring teams in the NHL, until the recent decline.
“When we had a couple of guys injured, everyone stepped up. We understand we need to play better with everyone back, everyone healthy,” Evgeni Malkin said. “We think it’s like no, we have so much skill, it should be an easy game and we can score on every shift.”
That’s the vexing part to the locker room and head coach Mike Sullivan. The Penguins have long been known as a skilled team. For generations, the best player on the planet resided in Pittsburgh and perhaps still does, but the game is different now.
Depending on your interpretation, Malkin essentially called the Penguins out for thinking they have more skill and thus don’t have to work hard. Malkin just used the emergency sledgehammer to describe his team in the same way many critics in the past have done.
“We need to step up. It doesn’t matter who’s on your line, or how the game goes,” Evgeni Malkin declared.
In the last two seasons, the Penguins healthy rostered stumbled in March for many of the same reasons. Whether healthy players try to do too much or become spectators, or assume the talent edge will pay dividends.
“When we had five or six guys injured, we played so much better. It’s hard to understand,” the big Russian said. “It’s the same with me. When Sid is hurt, I play better. When he’s back, my game is a little bit worse right now.”
“We need the new guys to step up, too. We need to talk a little bit more and support each other…We believe in this group. (Sunday) is a big game, and we need to start tomorrow.”
They’ve lost seven of nine and done so in ugly fashion. The Penguins have turned in poor efforts, failed to play to their identity but instead played like a casual team in October outside the dots. Those games will work against Buffalo or Ottawa but not against Washington. Or the New York Islanders. Or the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Penguins are again at a crossroads. Last season, they never found the gear. This season, they found it. They know it exists, and so does everyone else. Now we watch and wonder if they can do get back to it.
It does begin Sunday.