After a 4-2 preseason that included a 3-0 record at CONSOL Energy Center, the Penguins spoke of a desire to establish dominance in their new home, to make it a tough place for visiting teams to play.
Four games into the regular season, it’s safe to say this is hardly what Pittsburgh had in mind.
The Penguins are 0-3 on home ice, having been edged by Philadelphia, Montreal and Toronto in one-goal games. Their lone win came on the road in New Jersey – a team that swept its season series against Pittsburgh last year – and belonged to their backup goaltender, Brent Johnson. Starter Marc-Andre Fleury is winless in his three starts, with a goals-against average of 3.41, a save percentage of .853, and a few soft goals he’d surely like to have back.
“There’s a couple there that Flower’s got to come up with the save for us,” head coach Dan Bylsma said, and his goaltender couldn’t disagree with that assessment.
“I’m not trying to look for excuses,” said Fleury. “Some I didn’t see, some just [went] in. It’s just frustrating to let in so many.”
The relatively inexperienced defense in front of Fleury hasn’t helped matters. With defenseman Brooks Orpik already out due to a lingering groin problem, offseason acquisition Zbynek Michalek suffered an apparent shoulder injury in New Jersey and will miss two to four weeks. That leaves the Penguins with two rookies – Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland – and one recent callup, Andrew Hutchinson – among their six-man blueline.
“They’re obviously two great players and guys that play a lot of minutes for us in all situations, so it’s tough, but it happens every year,” said defenseman Alex Goligioski, who, along with fellow blueliner Paul Martin, co-leads the team with four points. “You just battle through it, and we still have a good group here. We should be more than capable.”
Still, add that to a team that’s missing forwards Jordan Staal, who’s resumed skating but still has no timetable for his return, and Arron Asham, who’s out with an upper-body injury, and the Penguins are hurting. But injuries or not, Bylsma said, his team simply has to execute better.
“I think in order to win hockey games, in order to be a good team, there’s got to be a certain level of execution that’s necessary,” Bylsma said. “If you don’t have it, you can’t expect to be a good team, and you can’t expect to put yourself in a situation to win a lot of hockey games. And we have not done that with any consistency to this point.”
Mike Comrie, who thrived in the preseason alongside Evgeni Malkin, was sent a message from the coaching staff Wednesday, as he was scratched against the physical Maple Leafs in favor of enforcer Eric Godard. Comrie has yet to register a point in the regular season.
“He will get another opportunity,” Bylsma said. “Mike is a guy who adds offensive ability and can play in different spots, and he could have three points right now if we hit an open net or it doesn’t clank off the post. Just puck battles on both ends of the rink and being hard on the puck and being able to make those plays … he has to be able to do that and do all those things, both offensively and defensively.”
That’s a problem that’s hardly isolated to a single player, however, as the Penguins have found themselves committing defensive breakdowns while trying to be too fancy with their offensive game.
“Sometimes the identity of our team is probably that we’re highly skilled, a team that can make plays, a dangerous team,” Bylsma said. “And, when we go out to play that game and we fall into that kind of identity, we run into problems.
“We’re a team that wants to play in the offensive zone and wear teams down with our speed by playing there, and that’s got to be our mentality. That’s the best way for us to play defense; it’s the best way for us to get to our game. And [being] fancy, or lack of execution, or turnovers, is a great way for a team to frustrate you and allow [an opponent] to get to work as well. We have been that for four games, and it’s away from where our focus needs to be.”
Pittsburgh has another opportunity to get its first regular-season win on home ice Friday against the New York Islanders. Johnson will get the start, with Fleury presumably getting the call in Philadelphia Saturday. And a win would go a long way toward helping the Penguins shake off the frustration that’s growing with each loss.
“With each game that goes by, and especially when you expect to win each one and the guys are working hard, it starts to get discouraging,” Martin said. “But that’s something we can’t concentrate on, now that that one’s over. We just have to be ready to play the next one better than we did today.”