Despite their red-hot start and position near the top of the standings, the Pittsburgh Penguins still show a lot the same cracks that brought their Stanley Cup hopes to a screeching halt last year. Wednesday night’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers was yet another painful reminder of the last year’s playoff debacle – and looks to be part of a growing trend. The Penguins may be extremely talented, but it doesn’t amount to much if they can’t play disciplined hockey – not to mention keep their composure and stay out of the box.
Protecting a Lead
Things initially looked bright on Wednesday as the Penguins jumped out to a quick two goal lead. But shortly thereafter, the wheels fell off. So far this year, the Penguins haven’t been terrible with a lead. They did blow a two goal lead in their loss to Winnipeg on January 25th, but their team Fenwick Percentage while up by two goals – a plus/minus stat that compares all shots, misses and goals for and against to measure puck possession and offensive pressure - is 46.88 on the season, good for 12th in the NHL.
Against the Flyers, however, that number dropped precipitously. The Penguins were outshot 6-0 with a Fenwick percentage of just 28.57 after going up by two – before Nicklas Grossmann popped the puck in through a wild scrum in front of the net. The goal itself may have been fluky, but the Penguins were clearly on their heels and flat-out being outplayed.
Then just a minute later, after a crushing Wayne Simmonds check forced a feeble clearing attempt from Paul Martin – and left the Penguins defenseman out of position with no help down low – Simmonds was able to convert on a great pass from Danny Briere.
And then came the penalties.
Instead of buckling down and playing disciplined hockey, the Penguins continued trying to score at all costs while neglecting their defensive duties. But to make matters worse they also started playing right into the Flyer’s hands, and got pulled into extracurricular incidents after the whistle over and over again.
Agitator-extraordinaire Zac Rinaldo, did an especially good job of pestering the Penguins and knocking them off their game. He drew three penalties in total, including one that took the Penguins’ best defenseman Kris Letang off the ice for two minutes and a late double-minor against Tanner Glass. Luckily for the Penguins, the Flyers took their fair share of penalties too (10 to the Penguins’ 9 overall), which was the only thing preventing the Penguins from being boat-raced.
It may be tempting to write this game off as an isolated incident, especially since it happened against the arch-rival Flyers, who always find a way to get the Penguins off their game. But unfortunately, this is now the third time this year the Penguins have lost in a similar fashion. Pittsburgh’s first loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 23rd and the February 9th loss to the New Jersey Devils also saw the Penguins come out of the gate firing before imploding in a cloud of needless penalties.
The problem isn’t the penalty kill either. The Penguins are in the upper half of the league with an 82.6% penalty kill. It’s that once the emotions start boiling over, the Penguins are unable to right the ship and get back to the disciplined style of hockey that has brought them so much success.
Knowing is Half the Battle
The good news is that the Penguins know there’s a problem. “We got too emotional and involved with extracurricular [stuff] down the line. We were too worried between whistles,” said coach Dan Bylsma after the loss to the Flyers. Adding: “We don’t want to get into (shootout). We don’t want to get into that up-and-down game.”
And the message seems to be registering with the players. “[It's the] same old story getting in what they like to do after the whistle. We can’t get dragged into that,” said James Neal.
“We lost our focus. [It’s the] same thing [we] addressed last year. They target guys and we retaliate back. [We] have to move on and take that stuff,” said Brooks Orpik, echoing Bylsma’s sentiment.
But knowing there’s a problem and fixing the problem are two different things.
It’s great to hear that kind of talk come from Bylsma, and even more so from Orpik, one of the Penguins’ most experienced players and an alternate captain. But someone needs to actually step up and let the team know that careless play will not be tolerated and it needs to translate to change on the ice. It doesn’t matter if it comes from the coaching staff, captain Sidney Crosby or one of the other team leaders, it just needs to happen.
Evgeni Malkin, an alternate captain himself, in particular needs to show more mental toughness. There’s no doubt that Malkin is a fierce competitor, but he has to realize that he cannot let his emotions run wild. No matter how angry he gets, it’s not worth it for him to get drawn in after the whistle and take a penalty. He’s much more valuable on the ice.
There is still time to correct these issues. And to be fair, with the lockout, the team did not have much of a training camp to work out their issues before being thrown into the fire of the shortened regular season. But if nothing changes the Penguins can look forward to another early exit.