At times during what has now become a 2-6-1 freefall, the Penguins and head coach Mike Sullivan have spoken with confidence about trusting the process. They’re doing the right things but not getting the results. Playing hard but not getting the bounces.
Saturday, however, after leads of 1-0 and 3-2 evaporated into a 6-3 loss to the Washington Capitals, the Penguins’ playoff positioning was starting to look a little more precarious. Currently No. 3 in the Metro Division, the Penguins are six points behind the New York Rangers for second place – and suddenly find themselves only four points ahead of the Caps, who sit in the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot with two games in hand.
“Tonight for me was a different story than some of the other games,” Sullivan said. “Tonight, we just weren’t good enough. We didn’t execute. We were careless with the puck.
“Give Washington credit; they played hard. They were opportunistic on their chances. But we didn’t play well enough. We beat ourselves in a lot of ways.”
Veteran forward Brian Boyle, whose 10th goal of the season gave the Penguins 11 players with at least that many, had also heard enough about not getting the result.
“We played well for two periods, then we weren’t good enough to win,” Boyle said. “And that’s just not OK this time of year. Come playoff time, I don’t care how we play; we’ve got to get wins. That’s all that matters.”
During this nine-game stretch dating back to March 23, the Penguins have the NHL’s fourth-most goals against (34), giving up an average of 3.78 per game. An early season defined by buying into Sullivan’s system is now riddled with lapses.
“We play a little loose and the puck’s in the back of the net,” defenseman John Marino said. “At some point you’ve got to play a full, 60-minute game.”
They’re getting into a habit of allowing quick-response goals after scoring one of their own, sapping any chance of momentum. Mental mistakes, like risky cross-ice passes, are creeping into their play, and odd-man rushes – like the one that resulted in Tom Wilson’s game-winner Saturday – are going the other way.
“It’s not any one thing; it’s a lot of things,” Sullivan said. “At the end of the day, it just boils down to attention to detail and buying into the game plan.”
And Tristan Jarry, an All-Star goalie midway through the season, is looking a little more ordinary – or, perhaps, like someone tied for playing the second-most games in the league (57) this season.
If you’re a Penguins fan looking for bright spots, you can start with the return of top-six forward Jason Zucker, who missed just three games after a push into the boards in Minnesota looked like it might have undone his 30 games of work recovering from core muscle surgery.
It’s also a plus that two of Saturday’s goals came from Jeff Carter and Brian Boyle, the kind of secondary scoring the Penguins have been missing in spurts this year. Both of those goals also came off of the kind of odd-angle shots they’ve been reluctant to take at times.
“I think you’ve got to be honest with yourself as a player, honest with each other as teammates, and get back to the fundamental way your team’s built, what gives you success,” Boyle said. “I think we need to focus on details to start, by defending – and that’s all over the ice. If you don’t have the puck, you’re defending; it doesn’t matter if you’re in the other team’s end or in the neutral zone or our end. Those are the things that help you get out of things like this. You really have to be disciplined.
“Every team I’ve been on has hit a rough patch during the season. You learn a lot from it; you learn a lot about yourself as a team. You have to be honest, dig deep and you can get better from that. The hard part’s getting it done. Learning it, figuring it out, moving past it. Then it’s a good thing.”
Starting Sunday when they host the Nashville Predators, the Penguins have just nine games until the postseason to work it out.
“We know what we have to do, and we have the leadership in the room to right the ship,” Marino said. “There’s enough older guys on the team that they know what it takes to win at this level, they’ve done it before and that’s why they’re in this situation and have been so successful. We’re still pretty confident.”