The Penguins have been one of the NHL’s top teams in man-games lost to injury over the past several seasons. Even for Pittsburgh, though, losing key players like goaltender Matt Murray (hand) and captain Sidney Crosby (concussion) before the season so much as got underway qualified as a tough break.
Tuesday in Montreal, the team added indispensible defenseman Kris Letang (upper body) and forward Conor Sheary (eye) to the list, though both seemed to escape potentially serious injuries. Thursday, hosting the San Jose Sharks in a Stanley Cup Final rematch of sorts, they ended the second period down two more blueliners as Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot left the game.
But the Penguins came back from a 2-0 deficit to win that game, 3-2, behind a heroic third-period performance by their four remaining defensemen, and the forwards who made a commitment to helping them out.
“Obviously it wasn’t a great first two periods for us,” said defenseman Ian Cole. “The coach came in, talked to us and wanted to make sure we put out a good team effort. We asked our forwards to help us out and play real smart with the puck, and they did. And you see, when you put it in deep and go forecheck, how many times you get the puck back. It creates offense for us.
“Enough can’t be said for how our forwards played. And Flower [goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury] played awesome and kept us in the game for those first two periods.”
The win felt like a potential turning point for the Penguins who, despite going 3-1-1, appeared at times to be sleepwalking through the first few games of the season with sloppy play and lazy penalties. When they headed to Nashville Saturday, they had gotten Maatta back, though Pouliot went on long-term IR. They also had the good fortune of facing a team that not only played the night before in Detroit, but had to recall five AHL players due to a food poisoning incident.
Alas, Thursday’s momentum carried over for only about a minute. Scott Wilson, lobbying for a chance to stick in the NHL lineup, scored his second in as many games just 52 seconds in. Then, less than two minutes later, defenseman Trevor Daley opened the door for the Predators with a puck-over-glass delay of game penalty. And winger Viktor Arvidsson took full advantage, tying it on the resulting power play.
“I took a penalty and gave them some life, which I probably didn’t need to do,” Daley said. “We need to be a lot better.”
“We’re playing well and then we give them that one chance,” said defenseman Brian Dumoulin. “And, lately, they’ve been capitalizing on those.”
By the end of the second period, Pittsburgh had allowed five unanswered goals. Fleury was hung out to dry with so many odd-man rushes that head coach Mike Sullivan decided to change things up and give fill-in backup Mike Condon some work for an uneventful third period that ended in the same, 5-1 score.
“It wasn’t just our blueline; it’s a collective effort out there,” Sullivan said. “We didn’t put their defense under pressure enough. We made poor decisions on when we were going to pinch. It’s a big part of playing this game – controlling momentum and not giving teams the opportunity to get the types of scoring chances that they got.”
“We’ve let this creep into our game lately; we’re playing a little bit too loose,” said forward Matt Cullen. “We’re making things easy on the other team, definitely not playing to our strengths and kind of hanging our goaltenders out to dry. We’ve got to get back to work and tighten our game up.”
That starts with making the right decisions, Sullivan said, but, six games in, lack of consistency is the bigger issue.
“We show signs where we have our game together and we’re hard to play against. Then we show other signs where we don’t make the right decisions, we’re late to getting pucks, we don’t hang onto pucks. And, as a result, we’re easy to play against.
“It’s not so much that we don’t know how to play; it’s the consistency of it. And, because of the lack of consistency in our game, we’re getting inconsistent results.”
Missing players like Crosby and Letang doesn’t help. But neither does having a team that too often shoots itself in the foot, negating power plays by taking near-immediate penalties, putting itself into two-man holes on the penalty kill, and not playing up to the level of its opponent.
“Those guys are playing with half a team on the other side, too, so it’s hard to make excuses. And we’re not in a position to be looking for excuses,” Cullen said. “We have a lot in our room to take care of, and most of the things we’ve done on the ice have been self-inflicted.
“We’re making things way too hard on ourselves; we’re giving up way too much. There’s no reason for our lack of competitiveness and our lack of battle.”
The defending champions get back at it with home games against the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders this week.
“Our expectation is higher,” said Sullivan. “We have to be better.”