Could the Pittsburgh Penguins’ recent success have been a mirage, masking major flaws that are now becoming impossible to ignore?
After starting the season 0-3, the Penguins won nine of their next 10, largely on the strength of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and contributions from their much-improved bottom six.
But Pittsburgh has now lost three of its last four, capped by an embarrassing, 4-0 rout Saturday night at the hands of the New Jersey Devils and old friends Ray Shero, Tom Fitzgerald, John Hynes, Bobby Farnham and Lee Stempniak.
The Penguins have scored just 35 goals in 17 games. That’s an average of 2.06 per contest, meaning Fleury – or backup Jeff Zatkoff – has to be just about perfect to give them a chance. Luckily for 10-7 Pittsburgh, the netminders have done that, allowing just 37 goals, tied for third-best in the league.
That goals-for number, though, is fourth-worst. And the power play, after going 0-for-6 against the Columbus Blue Jackets Friday night and 0-for-3 against the Devils, sits at No. 29 of 30, converting on just 12.3 percent of its opportunities.
Yes, those offensive numbers are from a team that boasts Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby up front and Kris Letang on the back end. And while those are the team’s top four scorers, Malkin’s 12 points put him on pace to score just about 58 on the season. Crosby has found the net only twice, and Letang’s -11 ranks him 12th worst of 693 players in the league. (If it makes Letang feel better, frequent defense partner Ian Cole is in worse shape at No. 691.)
If that sounds like a recipe for a players-only, closed-door meeting, well, that’s exactly what happened after the debacle in Jersey.
What’s wrong with the Penguins?
“Everything,” said Malkin. “We’re not playing right; we’re not working hard. I know it’s tough right now. I know we’re mad at each other. We need to just stop, look in the mirror and start to work. We don’t work.”
And the problems go well beyond the offensive struggles.
“It’s not only goals,” Malkin said. “It’s bad penalties, turnovers, it’s everything. It’s not playing right in the system. If you score, it’s a little bit better. [If] we can’t score, play right, not make bad mistakes.”
The mistakes are coming from a group that often looks disjointed and sloppy, with passes not connecting and defensive-zone breakouts – the cornerstone of head coach Mike Johnston’s offense – not executing.
“Execution and work ethic, I think, are kind of two different stories,” said Crosby. “That being said, I don’t think we’re put a full game together here in a while. And you’re flirting with danger when you start doing that.”
The head coach agreed, saying although execution might suffer in the second of back-to-back games, that doesn’t excuse a lack of intensity and effort.
“I wasn’t happy; the players weren’t happy,” Johnston said. “I just didn’t think we had that. I thought, early in the game, we were OK, and we let it slip once they got their second goal. And I just thought that, rather than push through it, we gave in at times. We need better effort, better intensity.”
That’s something only the players, not Johnston, can help.
“You can change lines, you can mix up pairs, you can try to juggle things. That’s what you can do behind the bench,” Johnston said. “When something [negative] happens, we’ve got to have momentum-changers. That’s what you need. And we just didn’t have that tonight.”
The Penguins might be missing one of their best momentum-changers, forward Patric Hornqvist, who left the Devils game with an undisclosed injury. But it’s up to all of them to stop the slide that, clearly, is starting to feed on itself.
“It’s better for us if we have more confidence, then we start to play better,” Malkin said. “But now we’re mad at each other, we don’t believe anymore, we’re not happy. It’s a good time to stop and look forward.”
“We’ve got to regroup, ask why and make sure we’re better next game,” Crosby said. “[This] should be a pretty easy one to forget; there’s not much good to take out of it.”