Wednesday, the Penguins came out in their first game since the Winter Classic and, with an 8-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, made an emphatic statement that they planned to get back to playing Penguins hockey.
In the two games since, however – both without captain Sidney Crosby, sidelined with a mild concussion – the Penguins have managed just one goal. A single shootout tally was the difference in their 2-1 loss at Montreal Thursday, but Saturday, at home against the Minnesota Wild, Pittsburgh turned in a 4-0 clunker.
“We definitely miss him,” said defenseman Zbynek Michalek. “He’s a big part of our team, our leader, and we’ve got to make sure everybody steps up to replace him. It’s not an easy task, but we have to do better. Only one goal in two games, it’s not even close to good enough.”
Chuck Kobasew got the Wild on the board first, at 13:23 of the first period, and Martin Havlat followed up with a second goal toward the end of the frame. That 2-0 lead was all Minnesota needed to shift into a trapping game, limiting the Penguins’ chances to generate offense.
“When a team like that takes a lead, they clog the neutral zone, keep five back, and they executed pretty well,” said forward Pascal Dupuis.
And Pittsburgh allowed the Wild to dictate without putting up much of a fight.
“They did not show us any surprises with the way they played; we got exactly what we expected from them,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “We just didn’t do a very good job of executing and managing the puck in that [neutral zone] area of the ice. They did a good job and they played well there, but we did not.”
That’s an area where the Penguins missed Crosby, though they’ll have to get better in his absence.
“We talk about going with speed through the middle of the ice, and there’s not much better than him,” Bylsma said. “But a lot of that, it’s very important to deliver the puck by our defensemen at the right time, and you have to time that with your centermen, with that speed going north. We’re going to get better at that; otherwise, you’re not going to be able to get to the offensive zone and play with any kind of forecheck or hunt pucks down and get to the offense.”
Michalek added: “We have to make sure we simplify our game and our passing gets better and get [to] our forecheck. [Minnesota is] a very good skating team but, if you don’t get the pucks deep, you don’t have a chance.”
The Penguins also didn’t give themselves much of a chance by simply failing to compete hard enough.
“It seemed like they won every battle out there,” Dupuis said. “We were second on the pucks all the time. We’re not going to win hockey games like that.”
The loss added to the woes of a Pittsburgh team that has been inconsistent since around Christmas, with a 2-3-2 record.
“We’re not playing our best hockey and we all know it here, and we have to work on it and get better,” said Michalek, who had the Penguins’ best chance of the night with a blast from the point early in the third period. In keeping with the futility of the contest, however, it clanked off the post.
“Nothing was going our way, and that was one part of it,” Michalek added. “Then, a couple shifts later, they scored a big goal [to make it 3-0]. That could’ve given us a little bit of life, but that’s how the whole night went for us.”
To be fair, the Penguins’ night didn’t turn out nearly as bad as it could have.
Midway through the first period, center Jordan Staal – playing just his fourth game of the season since returning from a string of injuries – went down in a heap after a collision with the Wild’s Clayton Stoner. Staal was able to make his way to the bench and returned to the game soon after.
“It looked like he might have gotten the wind knocked out of him,” said Bylsma, who admitted to some nervousness as he waited for Staal to get up. “I didn’t like that 10 seconds of the game very much.”
The Boston Bruins come to town Monday, and the Penguins are ready to get back on the kind of roll that saw them win 12 straight recently. To do that, however, they’ll have to get back to playing their way.
“I think the two games in between Christmas and New Year’s were not the best games from us as a team,” Bylsma said. “[They] were a little disjointed, and we didn’t have the same focus. But, after [January] 1, we had four days to turn the page and get back to our season.
“We need to play better than we have the last two games. I don’t think we’ve brought the same kind of execution and puck management and getting to the offensive zone so we can play our game, let our players go to work. We haven’t done that enough yet. And, until we do that, we’re not going to be in any position to think we’re ready to string games together.”