If the arrival of a new year represents the chance for a fresh start, the Pittsburgh Penguins were likely all too glad to bid farewell to 2011. The Penguins closed out the calendar year in much the same way as they began it at last year’s Winter Classic – with a 3-1 loss and injury concerns.
After Saturday’s defeat by the New Jersey Devils, the Penguins entered a five-day break with plenty of time to think not only about that loss, but Thursday’s 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, an emotional contest that marked their biggest rival’s first visit to Pittsburgh this year, and the first appearance of former Penguins Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot in orange and black.
In both games, the Penguins were short on discipline – first in allowing the Flyers to dictate the play, then in giving the Devils six chances with the man advantage and a penalty shot.
“They’re a good team, and we let them be good against us,” said defenseman Ben Lovejoy after the loss to Philly. “We didn’t get to the type of game we wanted. We want to play behind their net, and we do that with good dumps, with execution through the neutral zone and grinding down low.
“They’re a team that goes chance for chance. They want to be a rush team and we don’t. And we perhaps played to their strengths and tried to go rush for rush with them.”
In New Jersey, Pittsburgh fell behind 2-0 in the first period with goals on a penalty shot and a five-on-three power play. By the time the Penguins ramped up the pace in the second and third frames, outshooting New Jersey 21-11, the deficit against the Devils’ defense, goaltender Martin Brodeur and their own bench – which suffered injuries to versatile forwards Pascal Dupuis and Arron Asham – was too much to overcome.
“The pace of the second and third period and how we played there, that’s how we have to play,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “That was some good stuff from our team but, taking the penalties, we lost a lot of energy. We gave them opportunities on the power play, they capitalized and got a two-goal lead, and just coming back with a lot of energy is not necessarily what we need to be in that game.”
“In all three periods, when we stayed out of the box, five-on-five, we were pretty happy with the way we played,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “But the penalties gave them momentum, we spotted them a two-goal lead, and it was hard to come back. And, for these past couple years, we’re having trouble scoring on [Brodeur]; you know it’s going to be low-scoring when you’re playing against him.”
With 46 points, Pittsburgh closed out the year at fifth place in the Eastern Conference, just four points behind the top-ranked New York Rangers, whom they will host in their next contest Friday. To rise in the standings, however, the Penguins will have to figure out how to beat the teams ahead of them – so far this season, they’ve gone 1-5 against the Rangers (0-1), Boston Bruins (0-1), Florida Panthers (1-1) and Flyers (0-2).
“I don’t know if it’s cause for concern, but we just need to bear down and win those games,” forward James Neal said. “Those are huge games, and we know they’re good hockey teams. The onus is on us. We’ve got to play them harder and be the better team.”