At 11-5-3, the Pittsburgh Penguins boast one of hockey’s best records. They’re second in the Atlantic Division, fourth in the Eastern Conference and fourth in the league overall.
Pittsburgh’s road record, however, has little to do with that success. The Penguins have gone 6-1-1 on CONSOL Energy Center ice this year, but just 5-5-2 away from home. And, after dropping consecutive decisions in Tampa Bay (4-1) and Florida (3-2) to end the week, Pittsburgh has now lost five of its last six on the road.
The Penguins pointed to mental mistakes as the most troubling aspect of their two losses in Florida – a rarity for a club that has displayed impressive mental toughness and resilience through much of the past two seasons. Those lapses culminated with a too-many-men penalty against the Panthers, with just over four minutes remaining in a tied game, that led to Florida’s game-winning goal.
“I think that’s obviously a mental mistake, and a mistake that’s costly,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “But that was one of several mistakes we made mentally tonight that led to them having opportunities to take advantage, including their other goals as well.
“[Mistakes] do happen. But the standard to which we need to play, and what we need to do and execute on the ice, that’s both from a physical standpoint and mental. That’s imperative to the way we need to play, and that was not there.”
The Penguins’ problems also included plenty of defensive-coverage breakdowns, an inability to convert on the power play (Pittsburgh went a combined 0-for-9 on the trip) and lapses from a penalty-killing unit that has been among the NHL’s best this year but gave up four goals in 10 chances.
“Clearly, the special-teams battle [was a factor] – two power-play goals for them and us not cashing in on our opportunities,” Bylsma said after Thursday’s loss in Tampa. “A lot of them came late, and we were pressing at that point in time, but they won the battle 2-0, and that’s pretty much the difference in the game.”
The Penguins also encountered two hot goalies in the Sunshine State. Saturday in Florida, the Panthers’ Jose Theodore saw most everything the Pittsburgh offense threw at his doorstep, turning away 39 of 41 shots on goal. Two days earlier in Tampa, Pittsburgh executed its game plan of playing quick hockey that prevented the Lightning from going into its much-discussed 1-3-1 system and slowing the game down. They managed 34 shots on goal, but netminder Dwayne Roloson continued to shut them down as effectively as he did in last year’s first-round playoff series, stopping all but one.
“We know that they’re going to try to get into [the 1-3-1] but, if you play quick, they can’t set up,” said forward James Neal. “We had some good chances, shot the puck a lot, but a few frustrating goals [against] and Roloson played well, the way he played in the playoffs last year.”
One bright spot for Pittsburgh, however, has been center Jordan Staal. With 10 goals in 18 games played – including a beauty of a patient, individual effort to tie the game in Florida at 2-2 midway through the second period – he’s well on pace to surpass his career-best 29-goal rookie season. He’s also seeing his efforts pay off with increased confidence from his coaching staff and plenty of minutes in every situation.
“He was our best performer tonight and, right there at the halfway point of the game, took the team on his back,” Bylsma said.
“Every night, he gives it his all. He gives an honest effort and he’s getting rewarded for it, which is good,” said forward Joe Vitale. “But, obviously, everyone [else] needs to recognize that and have him create momentum and energy for us and back him up a little bit.”
The Penguins will get the opportunity to get back some momentum and energy this week with a three-game homestand against the New York Islanders, St. Louis Blues and Ottawa Senators before heading back on the road for four.
And, in addition to adding to their reputation as one of the league’s most dominant teams on home ice, they’ll be looking to reestablish the mental toughness and resiliency that has defined their team.
“Even in situations where we have given up goals or been down, we’ve been able to fight our way back into games and get some wins,” Bylsma said. “I don’t know if we have a secret as to why that is, but the effort and the focus from our team has been a key factor for us.”