Since starting the season with back-to-back road wins over division rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins have gone 1-3. The team is looking for answers – tinkering with forward lines, adjusting defensive pairings, tweaking the anemic power play – but it might need to start by looking inward.
“It doesn’t mean we need to invent something new or change the way we play,” head coach Dan Bylsma said after Tuesday’s particularly lethargic, 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders. “How we execute, how we manage the puck and the decisions we make with the speed we have and the skill, that’s a part of how we play. And whether [we’ve] gotten off track and in the wrong mindset, we’re certainly not playing the way we need to. That standard is not there right now.”
That standard also wasn’t there during last week’s 5-2 and 4-2 losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets, respectively – efforts that, by the players’ own admission, may have suffered from a lack of emotional investment.
“You never want to admit to it, but there’s obviously an emotion level that’s there automatically when you’re playing the Philadelphia Flyers or the New York Rangers,” forward Matt Cooke said. “You get a team like Toronto or Winnipeg, and we haven’t had the rivalry that we do against those other teams, and you get caught with your guard down a little bit.
“I think that’s something that needs to change in our room. It’s something that we can control, and it’s a pretty easy fix. That responsibility lies solely on the players.”
Some other recent trends might not be so easy to fix, however. Like a lack of speed that’s seeing the Penguins come up on the short end of too many foot races, and a lack of puck management that’s resulting in too-frequent turnovers.
“I just felt like every aspect of the game, we got beat at tonight,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “All 20 guys in the lineup didn’t play well and it seemed like if there was a puck battle, in the first period or the last couple minutes of the game, [the Islanders] were coming out with it.”
There’s also the lack of production on that powerless power play, which – despite boasting talent like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal – is just 1 for its last 14 and, at one point versus the Islanders, managed just three shots in nine minutes with the man-advantage. That not only squandered the five-on-four chances, but also sapped any momentum the team might have had five-on-five.
“When we had power play opportunities in the first [period], we weren’t able to get possession from the start or maintain possession, we didn’t execute very well with the puck, and I think that carried over to the rest of our game from there,” Bylsma said. “We didn’t play with a lot of emotion, we didn’t bounce back from that, and our attitude and our emotion dropped as a result.”
“We’ve got a lot of skilled guys that know what to do out there but, tonight, we didn’t even get set up,” Neal said. “We’re boggling the puck on the way in and we just couldn’t get anything going. When you have a good power play, it shifts momentum and that [carries] to five-on-five. We definitely deflated ourselves with the power play, but we’ve got to have a better effort all over the ice, and we just didn’t have it tonight.”
Pittsburgh will try to get the power play going with some adjustments, moving Neal off the point and back to his comfort zone down low – the spot from which he scored most of his league-leading 18 power play goals last season – and shifting Malkin to the right point and half wall.
“I’m definitely more comfortable down there, but the bottom line is that we just need to make plays and execute those plays,” Neal said. “We’ve got to outwork their penalty kill and good things will happen. Entries are huge – entries and possession and getting into our spots and making plays – and you can’t do that when you’re coming in and breaking out. It’s frustrating when you keep going back for pucks and you’re not coming into the zone with speed and execution.”
The Penguins might also get a spark from two players who have been recent healthy scratches, as forward Dustin Jeffrey and rookie defenseman Simon Despres got back into the lineup Tuesday and were among the team’s better performers. Jeffrey is getting a look on the second line alongside Malkin and Neal, while Despres is seeing opportunity while Matt Niskanen is sidelined for two to four weeks with a lower-body injury.
“I felt good out there; I was trying to keep it simple,” Despres said. “I wanted to play good to prove that I could stay in the lineup.”
“For myself, I think it’s [important] to keep it simple,” Jeffrey said. “If there’s a play to make, have the confidence to make that play, but we have to have the mentality that we want to get pucks in deep and go to work that way.”
The Penguins have the opportunity to get back to a more simple road game – and get their emotion level back on track in the process – with Thursday’s visit to Madison Square Garden and the Rangers.
“We just let frustration seep into our game and, when you get frustrated, sometimes you start thinking a little bit too much and that affects your effort,” Crosby said. “We’ve got to make sure our work ethic’s there and let everything else take care of itself.”