The Pittsburgh Penguins have been dealt blow after blow in recent weeks: Evgeni Malkin was injured after his collision with Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers on Friday, in his first game back after missing five with a sore left knee and sinus infection; Sidney Crosby has already missed a month due to a concussion; Mark Letestu will require knee surgery and miss 4-6 weeks; and Arron Asham is still out with an upper-body injury.
Yesterday, Head Coach Dan Bylsma announced that Malkin would be probably be out for the rest of the season with torn MCL and ACL ligaments in his right knee. Today, the Pens faced the Capitals in an unspoken Winter Classic rematch.
It did not go well.
Pittsburgh started the game with energy and determination, but it didn’t get them very far. While they played cohesively, they were collectively off, which made for a messy spectacle.
“It was a tough start for us,” forward Jordan Staal told the press. “Obviously we want to come out banging, but we didn’t.”
Washington forward Brooks Laich put a rebound past goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with less than two minutes left in the period. It was a frustrating garbage goal, but the Pens would come out shining in the second and take the lead like they did on Friday, right?
Instead, the second period was difficult to watch. The vast majority of time was spent in the Penguins’ zone, and to make matters worse, the Penguins took three penalties to the Capitals’ one. They were already struggling offensively, and this held them back even more.
“We didn’t get to the part of the game that we wanted to,” Bylsma said to the media. “And we had chances to do that and didn’t take advantage of it…we could’ve been much better.”
The defense, which has been admirable lately, looked slow and confused. Having to kill three penalties on top of these problems was just too much, and to make matters still worse, the Caps’ Marcus Johansson scored a shorthanded goal to give the team a 2-0 lead.
“Our PK did a great job,” said Bylsma, crediting the penalty kill unit with their performance in such a strenuous period, “but we didn’t get much with our power play and gave them the shorthanded. Special teams in a contest like this are always going to be a factor, and they won it.”
The third period looked a bit better. The Pens were spending more time in the offensive zone, but it was still too little.
“Throughout the game, we had our spurts, but we still didn’t gain enough offensive zone time to really make a difference,” said Staal.
Washington’s defense played hard (in the absence of Mike Green, who left the game early after taking a shot to the head). They allowed the Pens no room to make plays and get to the net, and the team as a whole excelled on the backcheck. Goalie Michal Neuvirth was an important factor as well, blocking all of the Pens’ 22 shots. An empty net goal from Washington’s Mike Knuble sealed the deal and the Pens lost 3-0.
The Penguins are a skilled, capable team without Crosby and Malkin. They are now 8-4-1 without Crosby and 4-2-0 without the star pair. That’s not great, but not terrible either. We know they can win despite the gaping hole, but today, the team seemed to really feel their absence. On a day when the offense – including reliable point-getters such as Staal, Chris Kunitz, and offensive defenseman Kris Letang – is failing to show itself, a game-changing player like Crosby or Malkin could have made worlds of difference. However, the Penguins cannot afford to spend their time thinking about could-haves. They need to swallow this loss and work on incorporating new AHL call-ups Eric Tangradi and Tim Wallace (Dustin Jeffrey has continually proven himself) into the system.
As a team, they can win games, but everyone is going to need to pitch in.