It’s just a one-game stop at home between road trips, but it might be exactly what the Penguins need.
The defending Stanley Cup champions return to PPG Paints Arena Tuesday to face the Arizona Coyotes. After going 1-3-1 on their longest road trip of the season, they find themselves in need of wins. After getting outscored 17-8 in five games, they’re also in need of a boost of confidence.
And, in a somewhat surprising development for the offensively gifted Penguins, they find themselves in serious need of production at even strength.
At a 28.8 percent conversion rate, the Penguins are second-best in the NHL on the power play. But, when you factor in all situations, their overall offense rates only 17th of the 31 teams.
“I think we’ve grown really accustomed to this team scoring goals, because we have a lot of elite players,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “So really, in my tenure here, this has been my first challenge in this regard.
“But it’s nothing we’re not capable of overcoming. I believe this team is capable of scoring goals, as long as we get more determined to try to play the right away and control what we can.”
Their shots and scoring chances trended upward over the last three games of the road trip, culminating in a 39-shot effort in Saturday’s 4-2 loss at Vancouver. Are the 2-12-1 Coyotes arriving just in time for the Pittsburgh offense to bust loose?
“I think we’ve played a lot better the past three games; there’s a lot to like about our overall team game,” Sullivan said. “We’ve generated a lot of scoring chances, especially five-on-five, which is something that’s been sporadic in this first part of the season.
“You can’t always control whether or not the puck goes in the net, but what you can control is the detail of your game.”
Those details take focus. They’re about discipline, heightened awareness and hard work. And, if the Penguins are being completely honest with themselves, they might be just a little harder to pay attention to on a random night in October or November than they are in spring.
For the past three games, though, the effort has been there, even when the result has not. There’s a distinct possibility, in fact, that Pittsburgh’s best players are starting to press too hard. Captain Sidney Crosby was on the ice for three of the Canucks’ four goals, while defenseman Kris Letang, now an NHL-worst minus-16 on the season, was on for all four.
“We’ve just got to find a way to put the puck in the net,” said Crosby, himself on an eight-game goalless streak. “We kind of let them hang around. We did some good things, but we’re hurting ourselves with big mistakes you can’t make that end up in the back of your net.”
Not to mention a lot of quality chances that aren’t winding up in the back of the opponent’s.
“You don’t want to be saying the same thing after every game and, to a certain extent, you know the chances will eventually go in,” Crosby said. “But that doesn’t make it any easier when you’re losing games and you’re not finding ways to score.
“I think the last few games have been a little bit different. I think we’ve generated more, which is encouraging.”
“Obviously we’re a little bit snakebit right now; the puck’s not going in the net for us,” Sullivan said. “We’ve just got to stay with it. I think as long as we keep trying to play the game the right way, we play hard, we win the puck battles and we do the little things out there, it’ll turn for us.
“We’ll make sure we get in the right mindset for our next challenge, because we can’t let frustration or discouragement creep into our dressing room. We’ve just got to become a more determined group.”