Tonight is the third of four matchups between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New Jersey Devils. The last time these two teams played each other was November 22 in Pittsburgh: Jake Guentzel scored the game-winning goal, his eleventh of the season, and Tristan Jarry stopped 36 of 37 shots to backstop the Penguins to a 4-1 win. A month and nine goals later, Guentzel would suffer a shoulder injury, and we’re approaching the disconcerting notion that we may not see him play again this season. Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, because in the two-plus months after Guentzel’s injury the Penguins were able to get along just fine without his services, or the services of several other players for that matter. As recently as February 18th, after a 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Penguins were in first place in the Metropolitan Division, and the impending returns of Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, and Nick Bjugstad implied that Pittsburgh’s fortunes were likely to improve.
Since then, the Penguins have lost eight out of ten games including two shutouts, losses against four of the bottom six teams, and, most importantly, an 0-3 record against two of their rivals in the playoff race, Carolina and Washington. They’ve allowed three or more goals eight times in that stretch, winning only one of those games (a 7-3 romp of the Ottawa Senators featuring Bryan Rust’s hat-trick). The silver lining to this gray cloud is that Pittsburgh is still five points ahead of the second Wild Card spot, but the fact that we are talking about the Penguins possibly falling out of the playoff race, when just three weeks ago they were undeniably in it to win it, is a travesty.
It is difficult to pinpoint why the Penguins have such a hard time winning games when they have a healthy-ish lineup, but a lot of fingers get pointed when it happens. After they lost by a combined 11-4 against the Capitals and Hurricanes this weekend, head coach Mike Sullivan kinda blamed himself (“The responsibility falls on me to try and sell the message so that we buy in”) but the more pointed message is that the players are not committing.
“The answers are inside our dressing room,” head coach Mike Sullivan said after the game. “I believe in this group. I believe we have what it takes. We just have to find a way to pull ourselves together.”
I dunno man, when you’ve got a bunch of hungry AHLers making the guys who earn the big bucks look lazy, while you’re still putting out a third pairing of defensemen which is dragging the rest of the team down, what’s really going on? How can the players have any confidence in the coach when the coach doesn’t put the best personnel on the ice game after game? I’m no hockey genius, but it seems to me that everyone else knows they have to push harder to produce, knowing that when the Jack Johnson-Justin Schultz pairing comes on the ice, that can add unnecessary stress to guys who already don’t do well with added stress (see: Letang, Kris, and Malkin, Evgeni). To his credit, Geno has been critical of himself and has been able to produce afterwards, but the rest of the team generally seems incapable of such introspection and self-determination.
One way or another, the complacency cannot stand. This is the worst time of the season to not just hit a skid but look awful in the process. Including tonight, there are just thirteen games left on the regular season calendar, which is not a lot of time to correct what seems like a lot of issues. The biggest knock on Mike Sullivan in the last two-plus seasons is that, when the team looks like it has lost itself, he is not great at helping them find themselves again. He’s pretty much admitting that there’s not a whole lot he is capable of doing; whether that’s the truth or not is probably not relevant, but he sounds quite willing to (negligently) sit idly by while he waits for his players to get themselves back to consistent confidence and success.
The worst part is knowing both how good the Penguins can be and how bad they can be. The last game against Carolina really demonstrated that to full effect. In the first period, Patrick Marleau scored the goal to give the Penguins the 1-0 lead, but you (well, at least I) could sense that Pittsburgh wasn’t going to keep that lead for long. Sure enough, Morgan Geekie scored thirty-three seconds later to tie the game. Malkin give the Penguins back the lead with a huge center-point blast on the power-play later in the period, but Carolina went on to notch five unanswered goals from that point on. Those two things – giving back a lead in rapid fashion, and more or less disappearing when the going got tough – reminded me of the Penguins from last season, and that’s not a good thing.
Maybe they are missing Dominik Simon and Zach Aston-Reese (and sure, Jake Guentzel) more than it seems on the surface. It’s amazing how much of a linchpin ZAR had been to the Penguins in general, considering his fourth-line role, but without him that fourth line is getting shelled and that’s something the Penguins need to have to not just shut down the other teams’ top lines but also give Pittsburgh’s top six more of a breather. Simon…well, I’ve never been a fan of his, but at least he helps the Penguins control the puck, if not being productive at the same time. It’s just frustrating to know that they performed so well in spite of all the injuries they faced during the winter, and now that we’re turning the calendar to spring and with a mostly healthy roster, they’re not playing nearly as well.
So while on the surface this looks like a good game for the Penguins to get back in the win column, against a seemingly weak New Jersey team which sits last in the Metro Division, don’t be fooled; the Devils aren’t that far out of the playoff race (eleven points) and they are closer to first place in their division than any of their other last-place counterparts in the League. It speaks to the still very fluid nature of the playoff race and the competitiveness of the Metropolitan Division, and the Penguins would do well to not take their foes lightly tonight, or for the rest of the season.
We know the talent is there. We know the skill is there. There is enough veteran leadership on the roster, plenty of players who have been at the very bottom and the very top of the sport. They simply need to get their minds right. All that matters at this point, besides staying healthy, is winning. They can win as ugly as they want, but they need to get back to winning.