How does a team with no shortage of multi-time Stanley Cup winners forget how to win?
No, the Penguins haven’t gone the entirety of the 2022-23 season without winning. They’re still over .500, in fact, with a 19-10-6 record, good for 44 points, third place in the Metro and fifth place in the Eastern Conference, largely on the strength of their 4-0-1 start and a recent 14-2-2 streak.
Before that hot streak, though, there was the 0-6-1 losing streak. And now there’s a three-game losing streak that’s featured some flat-out ugly losses. A blown lead with less than five minutes in regulation and a 4-3 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. An unprepared, 5-1 thrashing at Long Island coming off the holiday break. And, perhaps most embarrassing, Wednesday’s 5-4 home loss to the Detroit Red Wings in overtime – after the Penguins had led 4-0 after one.
As a group, the Penguins have looked the opposite of the “hard to play against” mindset in which they hoped to evolve with their offseason trades and acquisitions. It’s probably not a coincidence that several players who bring that edge to their game have been on IR – top-four defenseman Jeff Petry and fourth-line forwards Josh Archibald and Ryan Poehling. Still, head coach Mike Sullivan expects more from the rest of his lineup.
“The most important thing that needs to happen is, teams that are hard to play against don’t beat themselves,” Sullivan said. “If you’re going to get beat, it’s going to be because a team brings a tremendous effort and pays a significant price to beat you. And for me, that’s rule No. 1.
“Not to take anything away from our opponents, but I look at the way the games have played out and I just think the standard is higher, and none of us is living up to it, myself included. We’ve got to do a better job coaching this group so that we understand what it takes to win, and right now we don’t.”
The Penguins are beating themselves by refusing to simplify their game in the way Sullivan has asked – for example, coming off of an extended break Tuesday at Long Island. “We wanted to simplify the game and play straight ahead,” the head coach said. “We did none of the above.”
A simplified style may benefit the Penguins most nights against the league’s younger, faster teams, which, these days, includes most of them. Evgeni Malkin acknowledged that hard fact following the Detroit debacle, saying that because the team is “not young,” they need to play the game the right way for 60 minutes.
“Coach talked [to us for] 10 minutes and we understand, and I understand myself, we lost that game and fans hate us right now because we can’t play 40 minutes, the second and third periods, like this,” Malkin said. “We lead 4-0 [and] we try to score more, probably [try to make a] nice play, and we need to understand it’s not over when you play just 20 minutes.
“Everybody wants goal, assist, points, try to score four more goals and thinks easy game tonight. It’s not just one guy or two; it’s whole group. We have great experience here, great leadership. I don’t know. We take [a too many men] penalty last three minutes, six guys on the ice. We have great guys here; we need to be smarter.”
They may also need to make changes throughout the lineup where they can. The third forward line, centered by 37-year-old Jeff Carter, has been their weak link, and Sullivan may have hit on a solution Tuesday when he threw the lines into a blender versus the Islanders, moving reliable center Teddy Blueger up to the third line and shifting Carter to his wing. Making that solution permanent would require the return of Poehling, who’s shown himself to be a capable fourth-line center, to the healthy lineup.
Defenseman Brian Dumoulin has also been a shadow of his former reliable self, with major lower-body injuries and surgeries in recent years seeming to take a toll on his mobility. Dumoulin was making less of a negative impact in a decreased role with Petry in the lineup but, back to playing more minutes in more situations, the flaws in his game have been exposed. Despite their loyalty to the veteran, it may be time for Pittsburgh to give him a few games off and see what newcomer Ty Smith’s speed and offensive upside can bring.
Regardless of who’s in the lineup, the Penguins need them to play a whole lot smarter with the puck than they’ve shown over the past several contests.
“For me, one of the easiest ways to beat yourself is to mismanage the puck or not manage the game,” Sullivan said. “When you’re careless with your puck possession, you feed your opponent’s transition. We’re giving teams easy offense. We’d love to get that.
“In my experience, if you mismanage the puck, you can’t win. Not consistently, anyway. We’re not playing a collective game right now, and the game’s too difficult if you don’t play in a five-man unit out there. For whatever reason the last few games we’re disconnected, and that’s our challenge is to fix it.”