At 8-4-0 away from CONSOL Energy Center, the Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the NHL’s best road teams. So it’s somewhat baffling that they’ve spent the first two of a three-game road trip being outplayed, outhustled and generally outworked by their hosts in Florida and Carolina.
“That was a little concerning,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik following Thursday’s 4-1 loss to Carolina, which came on the heels of a 6-4 loss at Florida that wasn’t as close as the score might suggest. “I think the sign of a good team or a good player is, if you make a mistake once, you don’t make that mistake again. And we obviously made four too many mistakes, so not very good.
“Until we realize and identify the mistakes we’re making, they’re not going to be corrected. And I think the first step to correcting them is admitting what you’re doing wrong.”
One of those mistakes was abysmal defensive zone coverage that left their goaltenders out to dry. Backup netminder Tomas Vokoun got a homecoming start Tuesday in Florida, where he spent four seasons, and was pulled after surrendering four goals – all of them on the power play – on 22 shots. Pittsburgh gave up 36 shots in total, and 29 two nights later against Marc-Andre Fleury.
“Maybe the 20 guys in here don’t like Vokie and Flower; I think they’re pretty good guys,” Orpik said. “You could throw a blanket over the area [where] they scored four goals tonight, so probably our own zone, specifically around our net.”
Captain Sidney Crosby agreed, pointing to a lack of work ethic in the defensive zone. “The last couple games, I don’t think it’s been too good,” he said. “For whatever reason, we’ve been pretty loose in our coverage and made it pretty easy on the teams we played.
“I think it’s just attitude on the ice as far as our desperation level. Every team that we play against knows what to expect from us, and they’re willing to compete. I think we’ve basically been outworked the last couple games, and there’s no excuse for that.”
Crosby also reflected on the suggestion that the Penguins and their high-powered offense – although currently without the services of reigning NHL scoring champion and MVP Evgeni Malkin – might not have been as well-prepared mentally for the Panthers and Hurricanes as they would be for bigger rivals.
“We have to realize we can’t show up and win,” Crosby said. “We’re a good team, but we’re a good team when we work hard as a group. We can’t expect to show up in teams’ buildings on the road and just put on our gear and win. We’re better than the last couple games.”
“We’ve been on the road a lot this year, played in some tougher places to play and won some big games,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “If Florida and Carolina aren’t the type of buildings that give you the same focus as Madison Square Garden and Philly, then that’s something we’ve got to address. We can’t just show up and think it’s going to be an easy game where we’re getting two points.”
That shouldn’t be a problem Saturday, when the Penguins face their former head coach Michel Therrien and the Montreal Canadiens in the raucous atmosphere of the Bell Centre. If Pittsburgh is looking for a challenge, it will find one in the Eastern Conference-leading Habs, who are 7-0-2 in their last nine.
“[Therrien’s] a hard worker; he likes when his players deserve their ice time,” said defenseman Kris Letang. “I think it’s his work ethic [that makes his teams successful]; the way he teaches his players to come to the rink and work hard.”
The Penguins will be adjusting their lines, moving James Neal from Crosby’s wing back to the second line alongside Brandon Sutter and Matt Cooke to better distribute their offense. They’ll also be bringing back a “solid, steady defender,” Bylsma said, by adding recently signed Mark Eaton to the blueline.
Most of all, though, they’ll be looking to improve the lack of focus that has cost them four valuable points this week.
“[Losing] the battles leads to frustration and [lack of] execution,” Crosby said. “When you start getting beat a little bit, you’re getting outworked and you start running around, you don’t play with the same intensity, and that creates one problem and then another. I think it starts with our work ethic.”