The good news is that the Penguins have delivered on head coach Mike Sullivan’s promise when he was hired that they would become a more resilient team.
The bad is that they’re consistently putting themselves into situations where they have little choice but to battle back.
The Penguins have trailed by two goals in seven of their past 11 games, but have come back to get at least a point in all but one of those. They followed that script in their past two home contests, where they now have a seven game unbeaten streak at 5-0-2, but are doing it the hard way.
Thursday, the Penguins fell behind, 2-0, in the first period against the archrival Philadelphia Flyers. They then went into the locker room and emerged a completely different team, scoring three times in the second en route to a 4-3 win.
“I think we all felt we had much better,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “The message was just stick together and play the right way and we had lots of time left, so I think that’s exactly what we did.”
“I told the guys after the game that it’d be nice to not have to come back from a two-goal lead and actually maybe get a two-goal lead,” Sullivan said.
“But I think the one thing it has done is that it’s provided a lot of evidence that our guys can come back. We can still win games if it doesn’t go our way early; we have the people in our room who are capable of coming back in those circumstances. I think it will serve us well moving forward, because we can point to these experiences if and when we get in those situations.”
They didn’t need to wait long for another opportunity to draw on that experience.
Saturday, with Pittsburgh one of many eastern cities digging out from winter storm Jonas, the Penguins sleepwalked through the first period of their afternoon tilt against the Vancouver Canucks. They were outhustled – young defensemen Olli Maatta and recently recalled Derrick Pouliot in particular were torched by the Canucks’ speed – and outworked, and fortunate to get out of the period down just 2-0.
“I didn’t like anything about the first period,” Sullivan said. “I just didn’t think we played the right way. We didn’t stop and start. We didn’t finish checks. We didn’t stay on the right side of the puck battles; we didn’t win the puck battles. Our faceoff percentage was poor. And that’s something we have to solve as a group.”
Two periods later, after an Evgeni Malkin hat trick, a go-ahead goal from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-up Bryan Rust and an empty netter from Crosby, the Penguins had again managed to turn a two-goal deficit into a win, squeaking by the Canucks 5-4.
“Obviously, we’re pleased with the response,” Sullivan said. “I said to the guys after the game that this wasn’t how we would draw it up. I commend them for elevating their game and finding a way to get two points, but we have to see it for what it is and be honest with ourselves and say we can’t play that way and expect to get consistent results.
“We’ve got to heed those lessons, we’ve got to learn from that and make sure we’re not chasing games.”
It would serve the Penguins well to study up on those lessons sooner than later. Their lackluster start to the season has them right on the playoff bubble – in for a few hours after the win over Vancouver, out again after the New Jersey Devils beat the Winnipeg Jets Saturday night – and in need of every point they can get.
“We obviously need to be better on our starts,” winger Patric Hornqvist said after the Flyers win. “We haven’t been good for probably five, six games, and that’s something we really have to be working on if we’re going to make the playoffs.”
“We’ve done a good job of [coming back], but we can’t put ourselves in that hole,” new addition Carl Hagelin said Saturday. “Because all of a sudden you play a team that is extremely stingy defensively, and you’re not going to get the opportunities we got today.”
As luck would have it, a team that fits that description is up next. With their Sunday game in snow-socked Washington, D.C., postponed, the Penguins have a day off, then practice Monday before hosting New Jersey Tuesday.
If the Penguins are thinking of spotting the Devils a two-goal lead, they’re probably in for a long night.
“I told them it’s unacceptable; we’re better than this,” Sullivan said. “We can’t accept this from each other. We’ve got to find a way amongst our group to hold each other and solve it; that’s going to be our challenge going forward.
“Ultimately, it’s the players’ game. It’s their team and they’ve got to take ownership for it, and that’s why I’m trying to encourage them to do. Some of our leaders stepped up today and brought their games to another level, and that helped us get the points. But we as a group expect more from one another in order to get the results we’re going to try to get in the second half of the season.”