More than a quarter of the way into the 2016-17 season, it’s tough to know exactly what to make of the reigning Stanley Cup Champions.
At 13-6-3, the Penguins have put together 29 points, good for second place in the Metropolitan Division and third in the Eastern Conference. Their skill level and resilience are such that they can be outworked for 40 minutes or more of a hockey game, make a decision to go all-in for the rest, and still emerge with a win.
They’ve been on the right end of a couple laughers – like last week’s 6-1 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden and a 5-0 win over their Stanley Cup Final opponent, the San Jose Sharks, earlier this month. They’ve also been on the wrong end, like a 7-1 embarrassment in Washington and, Friday, a 6-2 loss in Minnesota.
To borrow a phrase from Forrest Gump’s momma, this year’s Pittsburgh Penguins are like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get.
“It’s hard for me to try to explain it. I think if I could, I could probably solve it,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “Obviously it’s something that’s been part of our game here for the first 20 games. We’ve talked about it a lot. The coaches have their ideas and opinions on why. We’ve shared that with our players.
“Ultimately, it’s all of our responsibility to try to bring more consistency to our game. We’ll keep working to develop that.”
The Penguins returned a nearly identical team to June’s championship roster, and their game is still centered on speed, puck possession and a strong transition game. So, to a man, the players know what playing the right way looks like for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Whether they execute it, however, has sometimes been another story.
After a 49-shot performance against the New Jersey Devils Saturday, the Penguins sit atop the league with an average of 33.9 shots per game. They’re also No. 3 in shots against, however, with 32.6 shots per game allowed. That’s often the result of forcing plays instead of, as Sullivan puts it, taking what the game gives them.
“I think the most important thing is, we’ve got to do a better job taking care of the puck in that end zone,” Sullivan said. “And if we’re not sure, sometimes the best play is no play. I think we’ve got to have more of a conscience on where we’re putting pucks and making sure we have more diligence with our decision-making.”
Pittsburgh could also stand to be more diligent about its discipline. With 97 penalties on the season, only eight teams have sent more players to the box. And, with a penalty-killing unit ranked No. 28 of 30, the Penguins can’t afford it.
“Our penalty kill has to be way better; it’s simply not good enough,” Sullivan said. “We can’t give up a penalty kill goal-against every game. We gave up three [against Minnesota]; it’s hard to win.”
Their No. 12 power play is better, converting on an even 20 percent of its chances. But it’s been slipping, particularly since their two players most willing to battle at the net – Patric Hornqvist [concussion] and Chris Kunitz [lower-body] – have been sidelined.
Since Hornqvist went on IR Nov. 17, the Penguins have had the fifth-worst power play in the league, going just 2-for-20 (10 percent). Since adding Kunitz to the list on Nov. 20, they’ve gone 0-for-13.
“Not good,” defenseman Kris Letang said after his club went 0-for-5 with the man-advantage Saturday, although they still managed to come from behind to tie the Devils with 14 seconds left in regulation, then win, 4-3, in a shootout. “We had some chances, we had some shots, we didn’t have anybody in front. It’s tough to beat a goalie when he sees the puck.”
Until those players return, the team is trying to fill the net-front presence role by committee.
“We had different guys go there – Conor Sheary, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Eric Fehr, Scott Wilson – on that power play unit,” Sullivan said. “We were looking for someone that could go to the net and take the goalie’s eyes away and retrieve pucks and do all that grunt work that’s so critically important to help the power play be successful.
“I think we’ve all gained an appreciation for how good Hornqvist and Kunitz are at those thankless jobs. It’s hard to replace those guys, and I think our power play has suffered, quite honestly, in the absence of those two.”
One silver lining from the injuries has been the recall of 22-year-old forward Jake Guentzel from the AHL. A point-per-game player at the minor-league level, he’s kept the same pace in the NHL so far, notching four points (3G, 1A) in four games. In his two-goal debut, Guentzel became the fastest player in franchise history to score his first goal, just 62 seconds in.
In their search for consistency and to try to spark underachieving players, the Penguins have been changing up line combinations and defensive pairings. Guentzel looked at home alongside Evgeni Malkin Saturday, while the members of the HBK combination that was so successful in the playoffs – Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel – have mostly played alongside other linemates of late.
Sullivan’s also not shy about letting a struggling player take in the view from upstairs for a game, as defenseman Brian Dumoulin did Saturday.
“We want to find consistency,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “I think every team, especially early on – and I don’t know how much longer we can say ‘early on’ – you have to find your identity and make sure you’re consistently able to bring the same effort.
“There’s no excuses; we’ve got to do a better job of being more consistent, and that’s in a lot of areas. But that’s something you have to build. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.”
For now, the Penguins were happy to head into a three-day break on the high note of their comeback win. For that matter, in the midst of a very dense November and December schedule, they were happy to head into a break at all.
“It was a very important game tonight,” Malkin said of rebounding after Friday’s 6-2 loss in Minnesota. “We know we’re a good team. Forty-plus shots tonight; that’s what we should show every game, probably.
“Now we have a couple days before the next game and a little bit of rest, then keep going. It’s a long season.”