Just past the midway point of the season, the defending Stanley Cup champions find themselves in their worst slump of the campaign so far. After going 0-for-4 on their just-completed road trip, the Penguins have lost a total of five straight and six of their last seven.
And the losses have come in a variety of ways. The Penguins have jumped out to multiple goal leads but failed to hold on; been shut out for the second time in as many weeks by Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils; given up the first goal, as they have in 24 of their 43 games, but failed to stage the comebacks that marked the early part of the season.
“It’s not really the same thing,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “I think, as a whole, it’s probably execution, but that’s in a lot of different areas as we’re looking at the games we’ve lost. It’s a combination of just making mistakes and paying for them.”
Pittsburgh is a team in search of answers, so much so that its players returned to the ice at Mellon Arena Monday – originally slated as a day off after back-to-back weekend games in Tampa Bay and Florida – to try to work out the kinks. The team worked for well over an hour in one of its longest practice sessions of the season.
“Guys all realize that to get a day off is a luxury, it’s not something that’s automatic, and you’ve got to earn them sometimes. We’ve got to do a better job and get some wins,” Crosby said. “We want to make sure we get back on track, and getting back to little things in practice is where it starts.”
“I think details, and the execution of those details, are one of the big facets to how we play when we’re a good team. And with the schedule, the Olympics, the little amount of practice time, some of those details have started to slip with our system and how we’re playing,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “In a minimal amount of practice time, you have to find a way to get some of those details into the focus of the players and back into the game, and that’s what we did today and will continue to do.”
Defenseman Brooks Orpik, a recently-named U.S. Olympian and alternate captain for the Penguins while defenseman Sergei Gonchar recuperates from taking a puck to the foot, echoed Crosby’s sentiment that the team’s struggles have been the result of sloppy play, and have had little to do with a lack of effort or hard work.
“You watch some of the goals [against] and you can probably see, just by body language, guys make mistakes and they know right away what they did wrong,” Orpik said. “It’s nothing too complicated; it’s just mental focus and missed assignments, really.”
And, although the Penguins could significantly help their cause by turning around some aspects of their game – like generating more chances on the power play, which went 0-for-4 Sunday and continues to sputter along at a league-worst conversion rate of 14.4 percent – Crosby pointed out that the difference between winning and losing often hasn’t been that great.
“It’s a good league. Teams are all good, there’s a smaller margin for error and, when you make those mistakes, you’re not giving yourself a chance to win,” he said. “We’ve played some good games in these five games we lost. Maybe previously, when we won six, seven or eight in a row, we got away with two or three games where we didn’t play that well and we still won. There’s no magic thing; we’ve just got to find a way to win a hockey game and get back to the things that made us successful.”
The Pens will have their work cut out for them as they face the Atlanta Thrashers Tuesday, one of two games at Mellon Arena before they depart on an extended road trip. Atlanta is currently just outside of a playoff spot at ninth place in the East, but only two teams in the conference – one of them Pittsburgh – have scored more goals.
The Penguins said they’ll draw upon the benefit of their experience and a strong team dynamic to try to grind one out and get back in the win column.
“We know what we’ve got to do; we’ve just got to find a way to put it together for a whole game,” said Crosby. “When you lose a few, it’s easy to hang your head a bit and start to worry, but that hasn’t been the identity of our team for a long time now. We’ve just got to make sure we all believe in what we need to do, and that we’re doing it.”
“No one’s happy, but there’s no finger pointing or anything like that,” Orpik said. “We have a team that’s used to winning, so it’s a little bit different for us, but there are no trades coming, I don’t think; there’s nothing outside of this room that’s going to change anything. It’s going to come from within here. The coaches can give us everything they’ve got, and it gets to a point where it just falls on us.”