Compete Level a Concern for Penguins

In the post-game conference following the Pittsburgh Penguins’ loss to St. Louis on Tuesday, Head Coach Mike Johnston made mention of some concerning issues regarding a few unnamed players.

Johnston explained that those players failed to match the intensity of the Blues.

“Their compete-level went higher, our compete-level stayed the same,” Johnston explained.  “Quite a few players actually had really good games tonight…they really picked up their game.  They played at a playoff pace, but we still had four or five guys that needed to pick up their compete-level.”

Without the likes of top-scoring forwards Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist in the lineup, it’s not entirely surprising that the Penguins have dropped 5-of-6 contests.  The shocking part is that, with nine games remaining and a playoff spot on the line, the coach is concerned about players not competing.  Lack of effort could explain why Pittsburgh mustered up one goal in three games against non-playoff opponents last week.  Sure, the team beat Arizona, the last-place team in the Western Conference, on Saturday, but it took a couple of lucky bounces after an abysmal first period to sure up the victory.

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
Penguins lose 2-0 lead, fall the the Blues in OT. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The Penguins seemed poised and engaged against St. Louis, but they let the Blues off the hook after scoring two goals in 17 seconds to take a 2-0 lead midway through the second period.  The Blues tied the game less than nine minutes later, when former Penguins Robert Bortuzzo and Marcel Goc both ripped home goals that Marc-Andre Fleury had zero chance of stopping.  They certainly seemed engaged.  Goc won 71% of his face-offs, and drove to the net on every offensive shift, while Bortuzzo collected four hits and found wide open ice to get his team on the board.

Think back to last Tuesday when the Penguins could not buy a penalty call against New Jersey in a 2-0 loss.   Many media personalities blamed the shutout on a lack of power plays, even though the Penguins probably would not have scored with the man-advantage anyway.  The resilient Blues finished the game with zero power plays and won.  They showed resiliency and exhibited fortitude…traits of a tight-knit, championship-calibur team.  St. Louis players did not berate the officials;  they simply picked up the pace and maintained their poise, which paid off in the end.

Diagnosing the Issue

So, why is it that Pittsburgh players have failed to do the same?

(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)
Penguins’ defensemen and Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang must focus on discipline as season winds down. (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

One theory: the League has failed to make the regular season interesting for teams.  Not all of them, mind you, but a solid chunk.   Take, for example, the defending-champion Los Angeles Kings.  It’s predictable that the Kings are making a late season push for a playoff spot after gingerly drifting through the first three-quarters of the season.  All they need to do is make the playoffs, right?  No team wants LA as a dance partner in a 7-game series, no matter the rink location of a deciding game.  Over the past few seasons, during the month of March, the Penguins only had to worry about who would be coming to Pittsburgh for the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and we witnessed the outcome of all that hard pre-April work.  The logical idea in 2015 is to only try during tournament time.  Sure, that makes sense…for the Kings, who will grind most teams to a nub in a long series with their size and physicality.  That’s not Pittsburgh.

Another, more plausible theory is that the Penguins still believe they can win on talent alone.  The Penguins are a skilled team that relies on finesse plays to create scoring chances.  Coach Johnston has changed the breakout mentality of his squad for sure, but, for the most part, players still believe in winning with skill in lieu of hard work.  General Manager Jim Rutherford certainly addressed that issue with his acquisitions in the offseason (Hornqvist, Spaling, Downie) and at the trading deadline (Winnik, Lovejoy), but some players — most likely those four or five that Johnston spoke about — might be having trouble accepting that skill will not always prevail.  In today’s NHL, scoring is down significantly, and tight checking is back in full force.  Superstars who once danced around and through other players no longer have time and space.  Pittsburgh, a team comprised of players who greatly benefitted from a skill-driven league, must adapt to the new, and often criticized NHL sooner rather than later.  Teams such as the New York Rangers, who ousted the Pens in the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, have thrived by using toughness and incredible speed.  Knock the other guy down, then make him chase you.  Eventually, he will not have the ability to do so.  By NHL standards, they do not cross the line.  The Penguins do in retaliation to those hits, and far too often.


Still a Chance for the Penguins

 (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr)
Some Penguins’ players, such as forward Chris Kunitz, are receiving criticism for declining production. (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr)

After storming out of the gates, the Penguins have hovered just over .500 since January 1 (17-13-6).  Their power play has been non-existent in that stretch.  Kris Letang and Steve Downie have both lost their composure and verbally bashed officials in recent games.  Despite all of this, Sidney Crosby is tied for the league-lead in points (74), even though his line-mate Chris Kunitz has clearly lost a couple of steps.  The inability to skate freely around the rink has created plenty of frustration for the Penguins, and now is the time to refocus.  There is no better incentive than to surpass the Islanders (93 points), who also have experienced some hard times lately, and claim the second spot in the Metropolitan Division.  As this is a likely first-round matchup — unless Washington (88 points) passes one or both teams —  the April 10 game between the Pens and Isles will most likely determine home-ice in the series.   With the return of Malkin and Hornqvist, who have combined for 113 points this season, on the horizon, Pittsburgh has a shot at representing the Eastern Conference in the finals.  That is, if the players Johnston referenced are willing to adjust and compete. If not, the golf clubs will be out by the end of April.