Inconsistent Penguins ‘Trending in Right Direction’

For their past two, Stanley Cup-winning seasons, the March of the Penguins has been more than an Antarctic documentary. It’s marked a time when the NHL’s flightless birds began to, well, take flight.

  • In 2016, from the Feb. 29 trade deadline through the end of the season, Pittsburgh set a 17-4-0 pace that was the league’s best by far.
  • In 2017, from the March 1 trade deadline through the end of the season, they went 12-5-3, good for fifth-best down the stretch.

The 2018 calendar year started out well, as the Penguins went 17-5-1 for 35 points, just one behind the streaking Philadelphia Flyers, from Jan. 1 through Feb. 25. Since the Feb. 26 trade deadline, though? Nineteen NHL teams have been better than the 6-4-2 Penguins.

That’s certainly not the fault of prized trade deadline acquisition Derick Brassard, who’s been a solid contributor with his 200-foot play and eight points (3G, 5A), including points in his last six games. No shame for depth addition Josh Jooris, either, who’s been fine in the four games where he’s been recalled from the AHL.

It’s had a lot to do with special teams. From the start of the season through the trade deadline, the Penguins power play had been clicking at a 27.2 percent clip, best in the league and good enough to challenge a 22-year-old franchise record (26 percent). Their penalty kill was successful 82.8 percent of the time, fifth-best in the NHL.

Over the past month, though? The power play, still stacked with stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang, has converted a woeful six times in 33 tries (18.2 percent). The PK has been even worse at 65.7 percent, good for No. 29 in a 31-team league.

“Luckily, we’ve still got time to fix it,” said defenseman Jamie Oleksiak. “We’ve just got to simplify it, play a little more gritty and turn it around here.”

The loss of blueliner Ian Cole at the trade deadline probably hasn’t helped the PK. Despite playing only 47 games for the Penguins this season due to injury, time in head coach Mike Sullivan’s doghouse and his Feb. 23 trade, he’s still third on the team in shorthanded ice time. He’s also fourth in blocked shots with 91, and nobody averaged more (1.9) per game played.

The Penguins were also playing without the backbone of any team’s penalty kill – their starting goaltender – for most of that stretch. Not coincidentally, Matt Murray suffered a concussion at a Feb. 26 practice and didn’t return until March 20. He’s 1-1-1 in three games since and, with a 3.63 goals-against average, is taking some time to find his game.

Murray assessed his play as “average” after Friday’s 4-3, OT loss to the New Jersey Devils.

“I think it just comes down to getting it done,” he said of a power-play goal he let up to Devils rookie Will Butcher. “You can do all the X’s and O’s you want, but it’s just the intangible stuff that you need to be successful, especially on the kill. I’ve just to make the save on that one.”

Sullivan, though, saw plenty of blame to go around.

“We have individual breakdowns or lack of attention to detail,” the head coach said. “And, as a result, we give up a couple of high-quality chances and they end up in the back of our net.

“We have mental lapses for short periods of time and it’s costing us, and you can’t have them at this time of year. Everybody’s got to take some ownership.”

Sunday’s game against the rival Flyers, a potential first-round playoff opponent, provided plenty of the back-and-forth that Penguins fans have grown used to over the past month.

Philly got into the Pittsburgh zone enough to take 45 shots. They burned the beleaguered Penguins PK for a goal with the man-advantage, beat Murray multiple times on the high glove side, and tied the game with 43 seconds remaining to send it to OT.

This time, though, the Penguins got the final goal when Bryan Rust tipped a shot from captain Crosby. That earned them a critical extra point in the Metro Division, where just three points separate the second-place Penguins (92 points) from first-place Washington (95) or the first wildcard spot occupied by Philly (89).

Crosby also contributed a goal of his own – and, like a few others he’s scored in a 14-point (5G, 9A) March, it was a jaw-dropper with a spectacular individual effort against Sean Couturier, one of the game’s best defensive forwards.

Malkin, still challenging for the Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies, also scored a beauty after faking a slapshot.

“It’s a privilege to be a coach for this group of players, and we don’t take a day of it for granted,” Sullivan said. “These are some of the best players of their generation. There are nights when I drive home and replay the game in my mind, and I marvel at some of the things that these guys do.

“They think the game on a different level, they have the ability to change the outcomes of games singlehandedly, and they’ve done that time and time again for us.”

They’re particularly adept at doing it when the stakes are high. Which, for all of their recent inconsistency, gives hope for a better April as the regular season winds down. They’re also trending upward in some key measures:

If those numbers, combined with their recent results, seem to speak to bad luck more than underperformance, there’s a case for that. And the good news for the Penguins is that bad luck usually turns around.

“We’re trending in the right direction for sure, and that’s what you need going into playoffs,” Murray said. “We’re a confident group in here; we know, on any given night, we can beat anybody.

“As long as we play our game, stick to focusing on what we need to do rather than what the other team is doing, we’re going to have a good shot.”