Is this the Penguins’ Stanley Cup hangover?
After playing more hockey than any team other than their two-time Stanley Cup Final opponent, the Detroit Red Wings, over the past couple of years, many expected the Penguins to wilt early this season. Pittsburgh defied that logic, storming out of the gate en route to a 11-3 October. Since then, however, the Penguins have been a model of inconsistency.
With a team that’s largely unchanged since last summer’s Stanley Cup run, Pittsburgh clearly has the personnel to beat any team on any given night but, all too often, squanders its opportunities.
Last year, the Penguins went into the postseason on a 18-3-4 tear, armed with a new coach and an aggressive new style of play. This year, they’re 6-3-2 since returning from the Olympic break, but haven’t played as well as that record – and, perhaps most concerning, have looked tentative against many of the league’s better teams.
That’s been particularly true when they’ve faced the New Jersey Devils, who completed a six-game sweep of their season series with the Penguins with two wins during Pittsburgh’s recent, five-game road trip. New Jersey outscored Pittsburgh by a 22-5 margin in those six contests, completely shut down the Penguins’ power play, which went 0-for-21, and appeared to be in the Penguins’ heads by the final game, with Pittsburgh committing one unforced error after another.
“I think we had a pretty good idea of how we wanted to play and what we needed to do, and I think you saw us do that in a lot of areas,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “But when you’re halfway through the game and they have 12 shots, and five of them are clear breakaways – we made some poor plays, we made some poor decisions with the puck, and they came right back at our goalie with some good chances.”
The inability to get to their game – a speedy, puck possession style that looks to spend as much time as possible in the other team’s zone – on a consistent basis has been a common theme for the Penguins for much of the season.
“I don’t think we generated as much as we wanted to,” said captain Sidney Crosby after a 3-2 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday. “It could be partly because of what they did, but I think we know that, if we’re doing the right things out there, we’re going to get our shots, we’re going to get our chances, and we’ve probably been guilty of passing up a few.”
“Consistency has been an issue that we’ve talked about, and I think that’s one of our challenges,” Bylsma said. “That’s something that, as a team, we have to get better at, playing our game and being consistent at it, regardless of our opponent and whether we’re at home or on the road.”
Despite their inconsistency, the Penguins remain in good position, battling with their nemesis, the Devils, for first place in the Atlantic Division. When the regular season comes to a close, the winner of that battle is likely to finish in second place in the Eastern Conference, with the runner-up finishing fourth.
The team in the number two spot stands to benefit significantly, with better odds in terms of home-ice advantage and favorable matchups in the playoffs. But to get there – and to replicate their playoff success this spring – the Penguins will have to start stringing together more 60-minute efforts. And they’ve got exactly nine games left to figure out how.
“Hopefully [it happens] soon,” said goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. “I think the playoffs are coming quick and, since we’ve been through it, we know that’s what it takes from everybody, every night, every game. I think we’ve got to bring it for 60 minutes; that’s the only way we’re going to be successful.”
And the Penguins still believe that’s something they’ve shown they can accomplish in the postseason – even if they happen to encounter New Jersey along the way.
“The playoffs is a whole different season. The intensity’s higher, the game’s faster, everything is bigger and more important,” Crosby said. “When you play each other in the playoffs, the past doesn’t really matter. The team that executes the best is going to win. This isn’t something that we’re going to allow ourselves to think about; it’s behind us, and we’ve got to be better.”