After an 11-3-1 December, the Penguins kept rolling with a 3-1 start in January, including an impressive, 4-0 shutout over the Winnipeg Jets, one of the NHL’s best teams.
Then they took off on a 1-3-1 road trip to end the unofficial first half of the season that left them with more questions than answers.
Is this team a 2019 Stanley Cup contender? What is the Penguins’ identity? And will they ever learn the value of playing 60 minutes?
Pittsburgh’s final game of the trip, a 7-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, served as a fine microcosm of their season in itself. After Phil Kessel got them out to an early, 1-0 lead, they made bad decisions with the puck to give up multiple odd-man breaks and ended up in a 3-1, first-period hole.
“We gave up three breakaways and two two-on-ones in the first 20 minutes of the game,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “We just didn’t play the game very smart. When we pinched, we didn’t have support with the reload. We didn’t stay above people on the attack. We were cheating in the offensive zone, and you can’t play that way against a good team like Vegas.”
The Penguins’ offense came to shine in the second, with Jake Guentzel continuing his consistent pace by setting up Dominik Simon and Sidney Crosby for goals to tie the game at 3-3. But then Pittsburgh had a power-play goal called back for being directed in by a skate, Vegas and former Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury robbed Kessel on a sure-thing scoring chance, and the momentum swung the other way.
“[The goal ruling] would’ve made a difference going the other way, but it didn’t happen, then he made some big saves,” Crosby said. “Generating chances, I don’t think we had a problem with that. We generated some good ones; had more than enough to score goals and win a game. But we didn’t defend well enough as a group.”
The Knights’ Jonathan Marchessault took full advantage of Pittsburgh’s lax defense, scoring twice in less than four minutes for what would eventually become his first hat trick with the team.
“That second period we’re playing really good hockey, and then we give them two easy goals and that’s the game,” said forward Patric Hornqvist, playing in his first game since sustaining a concussion Jan. 8. “We have to find a way to play a little more consistent defensively and play a little harder for each other.”
“I though the second period, we were terrific,” Sullivan said. “We had complete control of the game. We climbed back into it to make it 3-3. The power play, the goal that gets called back, that’s as good as I’ve seen the power play in the last month. And then we end up giving up two goals late in that period that were avoidable. Give Vegas credit; they’re a good team. They’re hard to play against. But, to a certain extent, we beat ourselves tonight.”
That’s happening too often, like earlier on the trip when Pittsburgh fell short in a 5-2 loss to the Western Conference-worst L.A. Kings, then inexplicably failed to show much energy after a two-day break for a matchup against one of the league’s best teams in a 5-2 loss in San Jose.
Sullivan was dissatisfied with his team’s compete level “all over the rink” against the Sharks. “I thought we got outplayed in every area of the rink. We weren’t good enough; I know we’re better than that. I know we’re capable of being a much better team. We didn’t execute tonight. We lost a lot of puck battles; they won the battle in front of the nets. They were better than us tonight.”
“I thought they outplayed us all game, really, especially at the net-fronts,” goalie Matt Murray said. “That’s such a key part of the game, and they were just harder than us tonight.”
The Penguins will need to be harder to play against in the second half of the season. As they head into eight days off between their bye week and the All-Star break, their 26-16-6 record has them in the Eastern Conference’s second Wild Card spot. They’re fourth in the Metropolitan Division, although their 58 points are just one behind third-place Washington and second-place Columbus, and just four behind the surprising, division-leading New York Islanders.
And, although they’re a near-lock to make the playoffs, they’re not in the league of Stanley Cup contenders like San Jose and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The players say they’re taking nothing for granted, and more 60-minute efforts would be a good place to start.
“We show a glimpse of what we’re able to do and, obviously, it’s a hard thing to do for 60 minutes,” said defenseman Kris Letang. “We have to put it in our brains that, until the end of the year, it’s going to be a tough fight to get into the playoffs, so we’d better start playing with that same edge we’re able to do.”
For Sullivan, the eight-day break is coming at a good time.
“I said to them, I hope they enjoy the break,” he said. “I think it’ll be good for all of us to get away from the game for a little bit. And when we come back, we’ve got to be focused and determined on playing our best hockey.”
His message to his team was around identity – specifically the fact that, as of Jan. 19, they were still in search of one. If the Penguins are going to become Stanley Cup contenders down the stretch, that has to change.
“I think the most important thing from my standpoint is that we have to find a way to become a team that has a clear identity of what it is and how we’re going to play,” Sullivan said. “And then everybody’s got to buy into it – everyone, to a man, has to buy into it.
“We have to be harder to play against. We’ve got to make better decisions with the puck. We’ve got to make sure that we play a brand of hockey that’s playoff-ready, that gives us a chance to win night-in and night out. And, to this particular juncture in the season, we’ve done it at times, but not nearly consistently enough to be the team that we’re capable of becoming.”