After a 4-3 loss to Carolina Sunday afternoon, the Penguins still ranked among the NHL’s top five teams.
With 70 points, they remained No. 2 in the tough Metropolitan Division. Their desire and work ethic can rarely be questioned – see their recent 4-2 comeback win over the Boston Bruins, for example, or their 5-4 overtime win over the Philadelphia Flyers to cap off Sidney Crosby’s 500th goal celebration.
Those are just two of many examples of the Penguins’ resilience this season. With four wins when trailing after one period and four more when trailing after two, they’re rarely out of a game.
Still, some elements of the Penguins’ identity that made them what head coach Mike Sullivan likes to call “hard to play against” for most of this season have been slipping, with bad habits and carelessness creeping into their game since shortly before the All-Star Break.
Most of the issues come down to simple puck management – a lack of the kind of discipline and decision-making that had them capitalizing on opportunities instead of gift-wrapping them for opponents.
“Some of it’s just execution,” said defenseman Brian Dumoulin. “We need to make better plays. When it’s there, we need to execute. When it’s not, we need to make another play – the easier, more predictable play.”
In their past two contests, facing two contending teams, the Penguins have come up short in critical moments that usually don’t bode well for the final score.
Thursday in Toronto, they not only failed to cash in on any of five power play opportunities but, with the Maple Leafs up 2-0 and a chance to cut the lead in half, gave up a dagger of a shorthanded goal instead. They were charged with 19 giveaways on the night, feeding the Maple Leafs’ transition game.
Sunday against Carolina, the Penguins failed to generate so much as a shot, let alone a goal, on three power play chances before Evan Rodrigues found the net on the fourth, his first goal in 18 games. Poor puck decisions led to breakaways and odd-man rushes for the Hurricanes.
Mostly, though, Pittsburgh was done in by a first half of the game where they looked a step behind – and by two Carolina goals, once off a lost faceoff and once off a faceoff win, exactly nine seconds into each of the second and third periods.
“Just got to be more ready,” said forward Bryan Rust, who scored his 16th goal in his last 19 games. In that span going back to Jan. 2, no player has more points (30) than Rust (16G, 14A).
“In the first half of the game we played perimeter; we tried to be cute,” Rodrigues said. “In the second half we kind of took a page out of their book and just started funneling everything to the net and getting there, then we started to get those secondary chances. It was a tale of two games for us.”
It’s likely not a coincidence that the Penguins’ issues over the past month or so coincide with the loss of center Teddy Blueger, who suffered a broken jaw Jan. 23 against the Winnipeg Jets. In addition to anchoring a reliable checking line with Brock McGinn and Zach Aston-Reese that’s often deployed against opponents’ top lines, Blueger’s loss caused a ripple effect throughout the forward lines that Pittsburgh has struggled to resolve. Following surgery, he’s now resumed skating but is still weeks away from his projected return to the lineup.
As they wait to get back to full strength, the Penguins can work on tightening up their play and avoiding beating themselves.
“I loved our fight in this game today,” Sullivan said. “I thought we battled hard; this team’s never out of it. But we self-inflicted a little bit in a couple of instances in those critical moments that we could do a better job controlling.
“It’s hard to play a perfect game out there, but we have high expectations, and we know we’re capable of playing a sounder game. I think we’re capable of a stiffer game without the puck, and a sounder game when we have the puck. When we play that game consistently, we’re hard to play against.’
With 30 games remaining in the regular season, the Leafs and Hurricanes provide a glimpse into the type of opposition the Penguins can expect down the stretch. Pittsburgh has 19 games against teams that are currently in playoff spots, including seven against Metro opponents – two more against Carolina, four against the New York Rangers and one against the Washington Capitals. They’ll see Colorado, Florida, Tampa Bay, Boston, Nashville, Vegas and Edmonton.
They expect a high level of competition from all of them, just like they saw Sunday from Carolina.
“We need to address those [lapses] quickly, especially coming up down the stretch,” Rust said. “We have a dogfight here for positioning, and we want to put ourselves in the best spot.”
“I don’t think there are any surprises out there; it’s more about trying to get to your respective game and dictate the terms,” Sullivan said. “[Carolina] is a really good hockey team; they’re in first place for a reason. They’ve got a lot of talent, they’re a deep team and they’re well-coached.
“It was everything we thought it would be. It’s a hard game; it’s got a playoff feel to it. There’s not a lot of room out there; you’ve got to fight for every inch. And that’s the game we need to embrace moving forward, because that’s playoff hockey. And I know this team has the ability to succeed in that environment. I think the more games we get in like that, it’s going to give us an opportunity to continue to grow as a team.”