After a 12-1-2 December, the Penguins are off to a 1-3 start in 2017. And, with combined scores of 15-6, the three losses have been convincing.
But head coach Mike Sullivan isn’t ready to sound the alarm on the defending Stanley Cup champions. Because he believes they’re better than what they’ve shown in dropping their last three contests – the first time that’s happened since the first week of his tenure in December 2015.
“When I look at some of the goals that were scored, we have opportunities to be harder to play against – with numbers, with commitment, with awareness,” Sullivan said after a deflating 6-3 loss at Detroit Saturday. “And those details are important. If we’re not committed to play away from the puck, then we’re ordinary.
“I think we have a talented group here, but we’ve got to heed the lesson. Make sure we learn from it and get better.”
It begs the question of whether the Penguins, with their speed, skill and stars, have been rewarded so often by late-game heroics that they’ve forgotten about the details. In other words, to paraphrase the motivational quote, whether hard work is beating talent because the Penguins’ talent isn’t working hard enough.
“I just don’t think we played the game the right way all night long,” Sullivan said. “I think we’re trying to outscore teams instead of trying to outplay teams. And, when you don’t play the game the right way and you don’t make a commitment to play away from the puck, I think this is what happens.”
“There’s some times where you can kind of getting away with making mistakes, and sometimes it goes like this, where every mistake you make feels like it’s a big one and a really good chance,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “When that happens, you’ve got to tighten up. Those details are even more important when it’s going like that, so bear down, really, all over the ice.”
When the Penguins aren’t playing the right way, the scoresheet often leaves little doubt. This week, they gave up five goals to the Washington Capitals, four to the Ottawa Senators and six to the Red Wings. Those are numbers that even the high-scoring Penguins, second in the NHL with an average of 3.4 goals-for per game, can’t surrender and expect to win.
“It’s hard,” said Marc-Andre Fleury, who started two of those three. “That’s a lot of goals-against, and you can’t expect to win when you give up four or six goals a night.”
The Penguins are in the NHL’s bottom third in that category, with an average of 2.93 goals-against per game.
“I know this team is capable of being better away from the puck and making more of a commitment to defend,” Sullivan said. “I think when we get away from that, we’re not as good a team. When we create our offense off of our defense, I think that’s when our team is at its best.”
That’s a lot easier to do when you have one of the game’s most gifted offensive defensemen leading the charge. If the Penguins lose Kris Letang, who scored the opening goal Saturday before going down to an apparent leg injury, for any length of time, it’ll add to the challenge of turning things around.
“He’s a hard guy to replace; he’s our top defenseman,” Sullivan said. “But we’ve done it before. He’s been out before, and we’ve got capable people. It won’t be any one guy; it will be by committee. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ll see how he is.”
One variable the Penguins know is in their favor? Their return home, for one game at least, to the friendly confines of PPG Paints Arena. Pittsburgh is the league’s best team on home ice, with 18 wins in 22 games, 87 goals-for and 54 goals-against.
That’s a stark contrast to their road record, where they’ve won just eight times in 20 games, scored 56 goals and allowed 69. After playing the Capitals at home Monday, they’ll head back out to Montreal and Carolina for two.
It shouldn’t matter, said Evgeni Malkin, if they get back to playing the right way.
“Of course we’re not happy; we lost three games. But I believe we’ll be back,” he said. “These next three games, we should win. We play good team(s) and, if we want to play playoffs, be better. We need to start next game against Washington. We play at home and just play right.”