If this feels like unfamiliar territory for the Penguins during the Sidney Crosby era, that’s because it is.
With a 3-2 loss to the Seattle Kraken Saturday night, Pittsburgh has lost seven straight for the first time since Crosby’s rookie season, from Jan. 26 to Feb. 8, 2006.
They’re 25th in the NHL standings – a far cry from when they came out of the gate 4-0-1, put up six goals in each of their wins and had the league’s second-best record. They’ve gone from first to seventh in the Metro division, from Stanley Cup hopefuls to playoff questionables.
The Penguins have found a myriad of ways to lose during the streak. They’ve blown several multi-goal leads, already dropping more contests when leading after two periods than they did all of last season. Their formerly reliable penalty kill has let them down. There was the squandered overtime power play against the Boston Bruins, followed by what felt like the inevitable Bruins overtime goal.
“We’re not getting some bounces that usually might go our way,” said goalie Tristan Jarry in a quiet Penguins locker room Saturday. “Just some timely goals that sometimes we need just to get back over the hump. It’s been tough.”
Saturday, Pittsburgh turned in its best effort of the seven games against the Kraken, carrying most every meaningful statistic from puck possession to high danger scoring chances to expected goals for, but were done in by an 0-for-3 power play.
“At the end of the day you [still] lose and that stings, because these are competitive guys and they care,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “When we don’t live up to the expectations we have for each other and we don’t get the results more consistently than we have as of late, these guys take it to heart. We all do.”
“It’s just a bad feeling,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “Sometimes you lose some games you deserve to win, and some you deserve to win but you don’t. Right now we’re not getting those, so we have to be better and clean up little mistakes that we do.”
They’re giving up an average of 4.71 goals per game during the skid – third worst in the league – and scoring just 2.29, fourth least. They’re making mental mistakes that gift opportunities to their opponents, playing too loose with the puck and, perhaps most concerning, the NHL’s oldest team looks an undeniable step older and slower than most teams they’ve faced during the 0-6-1 slide.
Another big problem: the Penguins of the past several years, who stared down injuries and illnesses with a “next-man-up” mentality, can’t count on that same kind of plug-and-play depth. Saturday’s lineup, for example, saw forwards Teddy Blueger and Jeff Carter on the shelf, necessitating Ryan Poehling to move up from the fourth line to fill in as third-line center. The bottom six was rounded out with recent AHLers Drew O’Connor and Sam Poulin, who saw just 4:32 and 6:18 of ice time, respectively.
That limited ice time would seem to indicate that the organization doesn’t have a high level of trust in its depth players, placing a greater burden on top liners like Crosby (20:03), Evgeni Malkin (20:14) and Jake Guentzel (19:52), and likely contributing to the cycle of mental mistakes and frustration.
“It’s not easy” to avoid letting frustration creep in, Sullivan acknowledged. “That’s the human aspect of sports. When you go through a challenging time like we are, it’s not always easy to make sure that you play a confident game and an assertive game. But I think the solution is just making sure we stay in the moment and we don’t get overwhelmed by all the noise around it. We’ve got to focus on the process and dig our way out of it, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
“You just have to celebrate the little things, whether it’s a big hit, penalty kill, a goal,” Jarry said. “I think that’s big for us right now, just trying to get any momentum we can and try to feed off of that.”
The team has been tinkering with its lines and defensive pairings during games as it tries to find combinations that click. The top defense pairing of Letang and Brian Dumoulin has been a particular lightning rod for a frustrated fanbase as Dumoulin’s skating, mobility and positioning appear to have regressed dramatically after multiple ankle injuries and an MCL tear.
With lots of unmovable contracts, no- or limited-movement clauses, and few other assets of interest to other teams, a big trade to shake things up isn’t likely. Neither is a coaching change, as Sullivan’s contract was recently extended through 2026-27. That means the Penguins are going to need to find the answers in their own dressing room.
“You go back to the basics; you just try to grind it defensively,” Letang said. “With the talent we have we’ll score some goals; there’s no doubt about it. Maybe just not to look to fill the net and play a simple game, and try to get goals after that.”
Saturday’s narrow loss to Seattle, at least, provided a more positive note to build on as they head on the road for three against Washington, Toronto and Montreal.
“It’s tough; we did a lot of good things and right now it’s a tough trek,” Crosby said. “You look at the game as a whole and we did a lot of good things, but we’re making a few mistakes and, when you’re losing, that’s magnified even more. That’s the situation we’re in. We have to build off of it, continue to play good hockey and trust that we’ll get rewarded.”
“We’ve got to become more determined,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got to be more vigilant in some of the critical moments in the game. When we got the second goal to tie it up, it was a big boost on the bench. I thought in the third period we had a lot of momentum, so [another loss is] discouraging from that standpoint. We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to learn from it, and then we’ve got to gather ourselves and get ready to win a game, the one right in front of us.”