Twenty-five games into the 2015-16 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a puzzling study in contrasts. Often on the same night.
Are they the team that steamrolled to their first win in San Jose in 18 years Tuesday, setting a season high for goals in a 5-1 victory that looked more like what fans expected from a team boasting Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang?
Are they a club getting by on the stellar goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury; a fourth-best goals-against ranking that often masks their inconsistent, fifth-worst offense; and the occasional breakout game from a player like Malkin, who sometimes seems to propel the Penguins on sheer will alone?
“It’s like we’re getting used to Geno; we’re not even talking about his goal but it’s another highlight reel at a key time,” forward David Perron said of Malkin Tuesday at San Jose. “It’s right up there with the last two unreal goals he’s had, and it’s amazing. He’s feeling it right now, and we’ve got to give him the puck every single time [we can].”
Are they the team that, with a series of defensive lapses, fell into an 0-3 hole against the Los Angeles Kings Saturday afternoon, or the one that clawed back to within a goal, making it 4-3 before losing the contest, 5-3?
“We had a number of chances that we probably could’ve tied it up at least,” Crosby said, “but sometimes things have a way of working themselves out where you don’t deserve it.”
“The only thing you take out of the end of the game is that you wish we would’ve had that all night,” said veteran forward Matt Cullen, who’s quietly had a good season as a clear upgrade on the Penguins’ bottom six. “If we have that all night, we’ve got a great game and probably come out of here with two points, but we didn’t.”
That inconsistency has been the one constant in the Penguins’ season. It’s been good for a 14-9-2 record, No. 8 in the Eastern Conference and just good enough to make it into the playoffs if the postseason started today. Of course, their reward would be facing the first-place Montreal Canadiens, which doesn’t sound like much of a reward at all.
Pittsburgh wants to play a 200-foot game – with all players committed to putting in equal effort at both ends of the ice – that, despite its roots in current hockey wisdom, utterly fails to maximize its high-end forwards’ high-end skill.
That 200-foot work ethic, by the way, is presumably what dynamic, 18-year-old forward Daniel Sprong has to improve enough to make it into more games. He’s played in just 14 of the 25, but his two goals on just 19 shots hint at the offensive creativity that could help a team in need of, well, offense.
The Penguins also profess to want to play a game where defensive-zone breakouts jump-start the offense. Defensemen Adam Clendening and David Warsofsky both possess puck-moving abilities that are tailor-made for that kind of system. Both have gotten opportunities this season with injuries to Olli Maatta and, as of Saturday, Letang, yet head coach Mike Johnston seems unwilling to let them share the ice in the same contest.
Saturday, Warsofsky, 25, got the call while Clendening, 23, sat in the press box, and Rob Scuderi – at 36, a defensive-minded defenseman whose speed and skills simply aren’t a match for such a system – continued to get ice time while getting caught flat-footed on the Kings’ first two goals.
“Our execution on our breakouts [wasn’t] sharp, and that led to the slow start,” Johnston said. “When you’re not executing on your breakouts, they get a little momentum by hemming you in your zone. And, really, our execution breakout-wise, the puck movement has to be better than it was tonight.”
If Johnston’s concern is that younger, less-experienced defensemen and forwards could give up too many chances in the process of creating their own, one could argue that the risk-reward proposition might be worth it.
“I think it starts with [Warsofsky] there,” Perron said of his power-play goal against the Sharks. “He shot the puck a few times and the [Sharks] have to go up or down a few more feet, and they have to react and open up more ice.”
To Johnston’s credit, one on-the-fly change he made Saturday came when he realized the ill-conceived reunion of Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis wasn’t working. The coach swapped out the struggling Dupuis and moved Beau Bennett up to the top line, where the 24-year-old Californian’s playmaking ability paid off almost immediately as Crosby turned a crafty redirection into a goal.
“They hung onto the puck and created some chances,” Johnston said. “What [Bennett] adds to the group is some poise with the puck. I thought, at least in the offensive zone, he hung onto it and made some good plays.”
This year’s Pittsburgh Penguins are, too often, not pushing the offense. They’re not consistently hard enough to play against. And, whether they address those deficiencies through a change in coaching, personnel or otherwise, adjustments have to be made if this group intends to compete for the only prize anyone in the organization cares about.
“We didn’t make it nearly hard enough on them,” Cullen said, referring to the Kings with a comment that could apply to much of the Penguins’ season. “I don’t think we got enough pucks behind them. Obviously, we didn’t spend enough time in their end. It’s easy to defend when you’re only in there for five, 10 seconds and you’re out.”