The Pittsburgh Penguins are on a 4-6-2 skid that has dropped them to second place in the Metropolitan Division – five points behind the New York Islanders – and fifth in the Eastern Conference.
And, while their overall record of 26-12-6 seems like the mark of a pretty successful season so far, a troubling trend is emerging. After a come-from-ahead, 6-3 collapse at Long Island Saturday and a flat, 5-2 loss against the New York Rangers Sunday, the Penguins’ record against divisional opponents stands at 6-8-3.
Factor in that the only measure of meaningful success for these Penguins will come in the playoffs – which follow a division-based format – and their struggles against teams like the Islanders, Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers could be a precursor to the kind of early elimination that led to a complete organizational overhaul last summer.
“Probably two of the games [against the Rangers], we beat ourselves,” said captain Sidney Crosby, whose team is 1-2-1 against New York this season. “We just didn’t play well; we didn’t really give ourselves a chance. Regardless of [who you’re playing], if you play like that, you don’t give yourself a great chance of winning the game.
“It’s too bad; there’s not really any explanation for that. They’re a team we should be pretty motivated to play against and, unfortunately, we haven’t done a good enough job against them.”
It’s simplistic to say that teams like the Rangers and Flyers – both of whom have knocked Pittsburgh out of the playoffs in recent years – have a knack for getting into the Penguins’ heads. But it’s also not entirely untrue, especially when the Penguins fall into an early deficit, as they did Sunday against the Rangers, and try to force the play.
“Sometimes, you get behind and you’re looking at the scoreboard and thinking, ‘We have to scramble to get back into this game,’” said head coach Mike Johnston. “And my message after two [periods] was, don’t play the score. If they got a goal, we were taking a step back instead of a step forward. We weren’t assertive in those areas. Play the game; you don’t force things, but you play it the right way.”
One clear sign that the Penguins are forcing is their propensity to pass up shot opportunities to make one more pass – something that’s contributed to their downward-trending power play.
“My big thing is to get 35 shots a game and to get early shots in a game,” Johnston said. “In the first period [against the Rangers], our shot totals could’ve been a lot better. We tried to make the extra play, and you can’t do that early in a game. We had to make [goaltender Henrik] Lundqvist play off the rebound, and we didn’t [do that] enough.”
The Penguins haven’t been as tough in front of the net overall recently as they were at the start of the season. And, although they’ve slowly been getting injured players back into the lineup, a couple they’re still missing – specifically, forwards Patric Hornqvist and Blake Comeau – would go a long way toward helping their strength down low.
“I think [the problem is] the way we play with the puck,” sad defenseman Rob Scuderi. “I think that might be attributed to some of the guys we’re still missing; our ability to play down low with the puck for longer periods of time, like we did earlier in the season, might be a little bit affected. I think some of that’s bad habits and some of it’s personnel.”
Pittsburgh got some reinforcement in the personnel department a couple weeks back with the addition of highly skilled forward David Perron. The 26-year-old pickup has more than pulled his weight so far, playing on the Penguins’ top line alongside Crosby and racking up five goals in six games.
“I’ve just got to do my job on the ice; I don’t really feel the need [to speak up],” Perron said. “These guys have been a winning organization for a while, and there’s a core of guys in this room that have been here for a while. They know what it takes to win, and I’m just going to try to help out.
“We’ve just got to trust the way we play. With this group, we’ll find a way to come back for sure.”
After the lackluster efforts against the Islanders and Rangers, Johnston and several of those core players likely had plenty to talk about Monday, when they changed a planned practice to an off-ice session with no media availability. The team then traveled to Philadelphia, where they’ll face their third divisional foe in as many games and try to avoid a third consecutive loss.
“I think, any time during the year you’re dealing with adversity, it’s going to help you as a team; it’s going to help you get stronger,” Johnston said. “But you have to deal with it in the right way, and now we need a response.
“We need a big response this week. We’ve got two really tough games [in Philadelphia and versus Chicago] and, when you look down the stretch, every game’s a tough game. Every game’s a battle; every team’s battling for playoff position. And, as a team, as we start to get healthier, we’re battling to get our game back on track.”
“We played two teams that are ahead of us [Islanders] and right behind us [Rangers] and we’d like a better outcome, but I don’t like to get too much into that,” Scuderi said. “I think it’s about our overall state of play. If we have a poor game against [those teams], I’m not freaking out about it. We still have 37 games to go, so I think we have some time to figure it out.”
For the Penguins and their fans, Tuesday against the Flyers would be a good time to start.