The Penguins surprised out of the gate this season, scoring four or more goals in four of their first five games and winning three of those contests. Since their 7-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs two Saturdays ago, though, they’ve:
gone 1-3-2, picking up just four points in six games.
scored just 12 goals, second-worst in the NHL.
converted on 5% of their power play opportunities, also second-worst in the league.
allowed an average of 36 shots against per game, second-highest in the league.
Pittsburgh’s penalty-kill is a league-best 92.3% in that timeframe, so that’s something. And goalie Tristan Jarry has been solid, as he’s been overall this season with a .926 save percentage and 2.28 goals-against average.
“I just want to be better every game,” Jarry said. “I think every game I’ve been giving the team a chance, and that’s ultimately what my goal is and what I wanted to do this year. Putting my best foot forward.”
But the three overtime losses in Jarry’s 4-2-3 record stand out. All came in shootouts, where the confidence with which he’s playing this season simply hasn’t translated. And that’s a concern when any of those lost points could be the one that leaves the Penguins on the outside looking in when the playoffs arrive next spring.
After 11 games played, Pittsburgh is dead last in the tough Metropolitan Division, with a significant distance of eight points already separating them from the division-leading Carolina Hurricanes.
Tuesday, in the latest example of missed opportunity, the Penguins played a desperate third period in Chicago, outshooting the Hawks 20-5 in the frame to come back from a 2-0 deficit. Veteran forward Jeff Carter scored both Penguins goals, tying the game with just over four minutes remaining to send it to overtime.
When the game extended to a shootout, though, with Jarry facing possibly the league’s best shootout goalie in former Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury, it was hard to feel good about the Penguins’ chances. Jarry couldn’t stop Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat, while Fleury turned aside attempts from Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang to give Chicago the win, and the Penguins another lost point in the standings.
“You’re going against the best players in the world,” Jarry said. “It’s tough to say. It’s something where it’s you and the player, and the player has the advantage. They’re able to slow down, speed up, and you’re basically just sitting there waiting.
“It’s something I think I have to improve on; it’s something I’ve been working on. I think I just have to be more assertive and make sure I’m showing my best version of myself in there. I’ll be the first one to be the happiest when that does happen. It’s been tough.”
Even doing more preparation, like watching video of upcoming opponents and their likely shooters, isn’t a sure thing, because it’s largely about watching and reacting to the move the shooter makes.
“It’s all reading and reacting,” Jarry said. “They’re doing just as much as you are. If you move left, they’re going to try to go right. It’s nothing that you could really do.”
Jarry has been playing big in his net for much of the season so far, challenging shooters at the top of his crease. In the shootout, though, his play has been decidedly less assertive. He’s looked far more confident on breakaways but said that, although both are one-on-one situations, they’re not all that similar.
“The defenseman chasing is making the whole difference [on a breakaway],” Jarry said. “They’re taking away the left or the right side, and the player can only go left or right. So I think it’s completely different. You have no backchecker, you have nobody pressuring you; you have all the time in the world. They can wait and take 10 minutes to come down the shootout if they really want; there’s nothing stopping them.”
With a relatively small percentage of games going to a shootout, and none in the postseason, it’s not the Penguins’ biggest concern. Right now, that’s probably centered on getting players back into their lineup from COVID protocol – defenseman Chad Ruhwedel and Marcus Pettersson rejoined practice Wednesday and could play Thursday, while captain Sidney Crosby, defenseman Brian Dumoulin and head coach Mike Sullivan are nearing their returns. Still, it’s clearly an area of opportunity.
“I think Tristan understands that’s an area he can continue to improve on, and us as a staff are doing everything we can to provide him with help,” said assistant coach Todd Reirden. “I think thus far it’s definitely not had an impact on his game at all; he’s been excellent in situations in-game, whether it’s breakaways or the 2-on-0 he had to stop [in Chicago] in overtime. It’s just a situation that we can continue to work on so we can gather those extra points.”
Scoring some goals – both on the offensive side of the shootout, where they’re 3-for-9, and in regulation so games don’t have to go to extra frames – would help, too.
“Scheme-wise, it hasn’t changed,” Reirden said. “We talk about playing as five-man units all over the ice and being able to add offense from our blueline. I think we can still continue to establish a little bit more on our forecheck than we have. I think we’ve generated a fair amount of offensive zone time, which is an important indicator for us in terms of territory and tilting the ice in our favor.
“For us, continuing to get opportunities and chances. We like our chances for versus our chances against in the last few games despite not scoring as many goals. I think we can tighten up defensively to keep those chances against down, and understand that, with our present roster, this is what we have and we have to continue to push to get better.”