After being embarrassed in Ottawa last weekend, 8-4, the Pittsburgh Penguins returned home and turned in a solid, 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils that seemed to signal that they had tightened up their game.
Tuesday, however, hosting a team 27 points behind them in the standings in the New York Islanders, the Penguins’ defensive deficiencies and poor puck management were exposed again in a 5-3 loss.
“We were a little careless with the puck,” said forward James Neal, who contributed two goals in the losing effort. “They’ve got skilled forwards and they’re going to capitalize on those errors on our part. We need to know what we’re doing with the puck. We need to go out there with a plan and execute.”
The Penguins’ biggest problem might be their own success. They’ve recently come off of an 11-game winning streak and 14 games without a regulation loss. Their starting netminder has been hot and co-leads the league in wins. And they’ve scored more goals than any other team, which – as it did last week in an 8-4 win over the Winnipeg Jets – can compensate for a lot of flaws.
“It even goes back to the Winnipeg game,” Neal said. “We’re letting them get chances, and grade-A chances at that. We’re relying on Flower [Marc-Andre Fleury] to make the big save at the right time. We can’t let that happen. We can’t get in track matches with every team. We just need to take care of the puck and take the carelessness out of our hockey game.”
“It’s not just this game,” defenseman Brooks Orpik agreed. “The last five or six games, we’re giving up good, good chances, putting too much pressure on [our] goalies. Maybe our approach is a little off; we’re trying to outscore teams rather than outdefend them. Some nights you get away with it, some nights you don’t. But definitely, going into the playoffs, you won’t get away with it.”
With 54 shots on goal and an astonishing 92 attempted, the Penguins certainly gave themselves every chance to outscore the Islanders. Nor could they blame the problem on their ailing defensive corps, which is missing Kris Letang (lower body) and Matt Niskanen (upper body) day-to-day and Ben Lovejoy for 3-4 weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on Tuesday.
“I attribute the injuries or the personnel very little to some of the areas where we’re managing the puck and the quality of the chances against,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “[AHL call-ups] Brain Strait and Simon [Despres] have proven they can come in, play the right way for us and defend and limit other teams’ opportunities. It’s not part of the concern when it comes to what we’ve been giving up with the puck and our play without the puck.”
Pittsburgh’s chances of catching the New York Rangers for first place in the East are rapidly slipping away – with consecutive wins over the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets, the Rangers have increased what started as a one-point lead Tuesday to a five-point cushion. But more important to the Penguins is using their final six games before the playoffs to get back to what’s made them successful.
“It’s a little bit of a wake-up call,” Neal said. “We have that powerful offense and you can make up for little mistakes. We’ve just got to tighten things up.
“When you’re having success and the puck’s going in and things are going your way, you tend to get away from the things that help you win and make you a good team. For us, it’s just going back to doing the right things and playing with that speed and that physical edge that we know how to play with.”
Thursday at Long Island and Friday at Buffalo, the Penguins will have the chance to respond.
“They realize the situation,” Bylsma said. “And there have been words spoken, both from the players and the coaches, about how we’re playing right now and our mindset in terms of where we’re at with the games we’ve got remaining and then heading into the playoffs.”