The Pittsburgh Penguins seemed to throw a little of everything into an intense, physical and entertaining 6-4 win at intrastate rival Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon. So, perhaps it wasn’t entirely surprising that, when the puck dropped less than 24 hours later at Buffalo, the club played as if it had little left in the tank.
“It was a letdown from our team,” head coach Dan Bylsma said after the Penguins’ 6-2 loss to the Sabres. “We knew exactly what team we were playing, what they could do and how they were going to play, but we didn’t execute. And, early on, we gave up good opportunities and they capitalized.”
Buffalo came into the game in last place in the Eastern Conference, but the Sabres took the play to fifth-place Pittsburgh from the start, scoring twice in just four minutes and change. It was the third time in five games that the Penguins got off to an early 0-2 deficit.
“It’s not something that we want to do every night,” said center Jordan Staal. “This time of the year, with the teams in this league, you get down [by] two right off the bat, it’s not easy to come back. We’ve got to have better starts.”
After allowing six power plays to Philadelphia and five to Buffalo, the Penguins also have to stay out of the penalty box. Pittsburgh has one of the league’s top penalty killing units, but defending the power play takes away from the Penguins’ goal of playing as much of the game as possible in the attacking zone – Saturday’s bizarre sequence against the Flyers, where Staal and Matt Cooke scored 4-on-5 and 3-on-5 respectively, both within the same Penguins penalty, notwithstanding.
“Too many penalties taken, and we’ve got to get better there,” Bylsma said. “We’ve seen a lot called the last two [games] and we’ve had to kill some penalties, which takes away a huge chunk of how we want to play the game.”
For a moment early in Sunday’s third period, it looked like Pittsburgh might battle back as Staal pulled his club to 3-2 with a power play goal. But the Sabres padded the lead again just over a minute later, then added two more for good measure before the final buzzer.
“I want to see the tapes, look at the goals against me again, but then put it behind [me],” said Marc-Andre Fleury, who allowed the final three tallies on what was to be a day off for Pittsburgh’s starting netminder. Backup Brent Johnson was pulled after allowing the first three on 12 shots, continuing what’s been a frustrating season. He’s 3-7-2 and has been pulled from several starts, adding to Fleury’s heavy workload.
“I’m confident this guy can play and win hockey games,” Bylsma said. “It hasn’t been like last season, where he won seven games at the beginning for us, and certainly the last couple starts where he’s gotten behind is not the best recipe for winning hockey games. But he is going to be playing again and he’s going to have to win us some games here.”
The Penguins’ other most maligned player this season – defenseman Paul Martin, who’s tied for a team-worst -11 – finished the game in Buffalo a -4.
“I thought Paul played one of his better games with the puck and created a lot today,” Bylsma said. “At the end of it, unfortunately, he’s a -4 and it’s not a good thing. Paul’s game, at some portions of this season, hasn’t been where we need it to be, and he knows that. He’s trying to get it back there, because he’s a guy we’re counting on to defend for us and play big minutes for us against other teams’ top lines. I don’t think tonight’s minus was an indication [of how he played].”
Since opening February by coming off an eight-game winning streak, the Penguins have been a mostly average, inconsistent 4-4-1. That level of play is unlikely to be enough on Tuesday, when they host the East-leading New York Rangers.
“We’ve got to find a way to play better hockey if we really want to make a push,” said Staal. “As of late, it’s been on and off. Obviously it’s a big game coming up against the Rangers, but we’ve got to find a way to play more consistent hockey.”