Penguins Return to Health, Not to Form

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a golden opportunity. Losers of three straight, they began a three-game west coast trip on Feb. 26 against the Pacific Division’s bottom dwellers: the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, who had a combined 74-98-17 record and a -129 goal differential at the time.

Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan
Coach Mike Sullivan has a daunting task in the season’s final weeks. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The Penguins lost all three games dismally, registering just three goals and finishing with a 5-0 shutout loss to arguably the league’s worst goalie this season, the Sharks’ Martin Jones. A week earlier, the Penguins had control of the Metropolitan Division crown. Now, they couldn’t win a contest.

Penguins Headed to DEFCON 2

While many would reach for the panic button, the analytics behind these performances told a different story. The Sharks match was one of their worst of the season but the Kings and Ducks battles, despite a lack of cohesion, were serviceable efforts. The Penguins recorded nearly a 63 Corsi-for % (shots generated compared to your opponent, with 50% being an even split) against the Kings. They also created the majority of the high danger chances (68.75) and they had similar numbers in Anaheim, according to Natural Stat Trick.

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The team’s form, however, was a bit off. The opportunities were there but they weren’t converting into goals. Injuries were catching up to them, with the noticeable absences of defensemen Brian Dumoulin and John Marino. Marcus Pettersson, freshly signed to a five-year, $20.1 million contract, was playing his worst hockey as a Penguin. Secret weapon Dominik Simon had found his way onto the injury list. Jason Zucker had quite the honeymoon with the organization but it had become apparent Zucker was not Jake Guentzel.

Mike Sullivan
The Penguins are in a rut and Sullivan’s running out of buttons to push. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

What had been a tight-knit defensive unit for much of 2019 became irresponsible, resulting in far too many odd-man rushes. The smart, disciplined style that defined the Penguins’ identity was beginning to evaporate.

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Thankfully, Dumoulin and Marino returned to the lineup on Mar. 3 and the new faces general manager Jim Rutherford added to the roster (Jason Zucker, Evan Rodrigues, Conor Sheary, Patrick Marleau) made the Penguins arguably the healthiest they’d been since the beginning of the season. The effects of that health were immediate versus the Senators. Marino scored 48 seconds into the first frame in what would become a 7-3 onslaught of Pittsburgh firepower. It was the same tale, different place in Pittsburgh’s next matchup with the Buffalo Sabres but then came Saturday against Washington and, well…

Pittsburgh, We Have a Problem

Since the arrival of superstars Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the Penguins and Capitals have been heated rivals. This rivalry has provided a measuring stick for both clubs, a standard for success. How the Penguins play the Capitals and vice versa is often demonstrative of the team’s capabilities at that moment. Saturday’s 5-2 result revealed Pittsburgh’s true colors.

Capitals grinder Nic Dowd scored minutes into the contest after Penguins winger Sam Lafferty lost track of his man. It’s no surprise that Lafferty was a healthy scratch the following afternoon against the Hurricanes on Sunday.

Capitals stalwart Niklas Backstrom was the recipient of one of the easiest goals of his career after an ill-timed Kris Letang pinch provided Washington with a 2-on-1 break. Pittsburgh found it in their hearts to gift the Caps another 2-on-1 before the first intermission, a present the Capitals turned into a 3-0 lead in PPG Paints Arena. It was a one-sided affair for most of the afternoon.

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This season, the resilient Penguins have usually responded to a home spanking with a strong showing, but then came Sunday and the Hurricanes and, well…

Penguins Power Play, Goaltending Continue to Falter

As the Penguins became healthier, the Hurricanes lost both of their starting goalies and added another of their top-six defensemen in Brett Pesce to the injured list. The Hurricanes entered the game as one of the most penalized teams in the league, spending more time killing penalties than every team in the league not named the Capitals. With a starting goalie with little NHL experience, the Hurricanes gave Pittsburgh every opportunity to win the game, including being down a man an impressive seven times. Pittsburgh only converted once and fell 6-2.

Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray
Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The Penguins’ power play ineptitude has become an ongoing problem over the last two and a half weeks. The team has gone 5/38 (13.2%) on the man advantage during that period.

Remove the power play and the team’s offensive production still hurts the eyes. Here’s what it looked like on Sunday:

In their last 10 games, the team has scored just 23 goals. If you remove the Senators blowout, that number is 16 in nine games. The defense has surrendered 40.

While many of the Penguins’ defensive errors can be attributed to their skaters, neither Matt Murray nor Tristan Jarry has been in sync between the pipes. In early February, they were one of the league’s best duos. A few weeks later and neither of them is playing at a high level.

Jarry was as reliable as any goalie in the league through the first half of the season, earning an All-Star nod. In his last four starts, he’s posted an 86.5 save percentage (SV%) with a 4.5 goals-against average (GAA). Murray hasn’t been much better. In six contests, the two-time Stanley Cup winner has an 88.2 SV% and a 3.5 GAA. Yes, quite a few goals, given the situation, were practically unstoppable but plenty of others should have been saved. When a team is struggling, goalies need to steal games. Instead, the net appears to be open for business.

Coming Up

Despite their poor play, the Penguins have a three-point cushion for third place in the division and the land of opportunity ahead. Their next eight matches feature opponents within the division and 13 of their remaining 14 battles are within the conference. However, if their play doesn’t improve, the Penguins will be going nowhere fast. It seems unlikely they crumble enough to miss out on the postseason but a first-round exit becomes more and more likely with each passing day.