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Why are the Penguins So Self-Destructive?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin

The Pittsburgh Penguins had one game, then one period, in which they could have set their season on a smooth course. If they beat the sinking Detroit Red Wings, the Penguins’ playoff lead for the second wild card would have been nearly insurmountable. The good vibes earned from a few good games would have grown.

And the Penguins would be looking forward to the playoffs instead of over their shoulder at the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres.


The Penguins self-destructed.


First-period penalties.

A lack of urgency, which is code for lack of intensity, desire, and sometimes heart.

Bad goaltending with the game on the line.

Soft defensive-zone coverage.

Abandonment of the principles of their game which they know make them successful.

We know the Pittsburgh Penguins understand the best tenets of their game because we’ve seen them do it. Yet, against a creampuff playing out the string, which was neither hard to play against nor incredibly motivated, the Penguins decided that none of those principles were necessary, at least with any consistency or intensity.

They lost. And they deserved to.

I suspect fans will gravitate toward their pre-existing bias and blame the player that has most frustrated them. For some, it’s Evgeni Malkin. For others, it is always Kris Letang. Many point to the goalie.

Let’s not forget the power play, the bottom-six, or Brian Dumoulin.

Still more will point a strident finger at coach Mike Sullivan, who on some nights is reduced to little more than a musher on a dog sled without runners.

And somehow, GM Ron Hextall was responsible for the dirt nap in the third period against Detroit, too.

Pick your villain. Pick your goat. The Penguins collectively take nights off. They implode, and mistakes pile up like cop cars in a Blues Brothers movie. It’s rarely just one player; different players often make the “deciding” mistake.

Sullivan often says hockey is a game of mistakes. If so, his team has a lot of game.

After 74 games of the NHL regular season, mistakes should be limited. A team should be close to reaching its potential, honing in the smaller details and good habits born of six months of grueling work.

For the Penguins, that seems entirely optional. From period to period, game to game, even shift to shift, their best is not a given but a surprise.

The Penguins’ postgame reaction could have been replayed from any of the previous dozen bewildering faceplants.

“I don’t know how to explain it. You know, we got outplayed,” said Sullivan.

“Inexcusable. Being 4-4 against that team, especially (after) being down three and coming back in that game, tying it up again at 4-4,” said Jason Zucker.

“We have to find a way to win,” Letang said.

If they cannot explain, you or I certainly have no hope. But what is evident is the trend of self-destruction. If they can’t get up for a game that could mean everything, there’s something wrong with their collective ticker. There’s something very wrong when they have the fate of their arch-rivals squarely in their hands with a 3-0 third-period lead, but give it away as they did Saturday vs. the Washington Capitals.

If Evgeni Malkin didn’t steal the puck and score a winning breakaway goal in the final minutes, we’d be having an even more difficult and negative conversation.

The team seems unwilling to seize its opportunities. After six months, they cannot bring their best when it is most important. It is one thing to give everything and lose. It is another to lose in the myriad of ways the Penguins do.

Sure, goaltending could go a long way to camouflaging their ills. The New Jersey Devils bombarded the New York Islanders in the third period Monday, yet a 2-1 Islanders lead became a 5-1 win as New York buckled down later in the game. The Islanders began to play simply, and then more simply, to thwart the Devils’ attack.

And Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin was brilliant when his team stumbled in the third.

It’s probably unfair to demand more of backup goalie Casey DeSmith. At 31, he is a solid NHL backup with flashes of brilliance and bouts of leakiness.

He was worth a start Tuesday because he was unbeatable for much of Saturday against Washington and has been the better of two Penguins goalies this month.

To blame DeSmith for the Tuesday loss vs. Detroit would be a gross oversimplification. The Penguins could have — and should have –dominated the pliable Red Wings.

Yet it was a free skate from the opening puck-drop.

Only the San Jose Sharks have given up more third-period leads than the Penguins. The glass-half-full version of that statistic is that the Penguins are indeed getting leads. Often, multiple-goal leads.

The Penguins still have nearly a 74% chance of making the playoffs, according to MoneyPuck. And one wonders if the start of the postseason will be the epoxy that finally binds the team to its potential.

But for now and this summer, there is one serious question: Why does this team self-destruct?