Penguins Need Individual Efforts to Offset Team Inconsistency

When the Pittsburgh Penguins began their 2022-23 season, they had in mind a set of ambitious goals that included a plethora of playoff successes. The returns of highly prized free agents like Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin alongside the ever-present leader, team captain, and franchise player Sidney Crosby resulted in a now-inconceivable prediction: the Penguins would contend for, and possibly even win the Stanley Cup. However, a recent stretch of poor play, largely beginning with select games in late February and still continuing, likely has some questioning the state of the franchise given how much optimism accompanied the start of the season.

Kris Letang #58, Sidney Crosby #87 and Evgeni Malkin #71
PHILADELPHIA, PA – FEBRUARY 23: Kris Letang #58, Sidney Crosby #87 and Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins pose for a photo prior to the 2019 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers at Lincoln Financial Field on February 23, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

While the period beginning in mid-February can be considered a low point for the team in 2022-23, the Penguins have also shown some slight promise and echoes of what they expected to be before the season began. However, those successes have just as quickly either been followed by or compared to seemingly colossal failures. In spite of this, there is something magical happening on an individual level with these Penguins, and it may just be the inspiration they need.

Important Victories Offset By Debilitating Defeats

The Penguins have been beset by division rivals for most of this season, so it was a welcome sight when they put one over on their Big Apple brethren the New York Rangers in a 3-2 overtime decision on March 12. Letang potted the winner, a storyline in itself as he has come back this season after unfortunately suffering another stroke in late Nov. 2022. The victory helped the Pens improve to (at that point) 7-1-1 in their last nine games and into a tie for the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference as well as to close the gap between them and the Rangers.

Louis Domingue Pittsburgh Penguins Mika Zibanejad New York Rangers
Louis Domingue of the Pittsburgh Penguins defends his net against Mika Zibanejad of the New York Rangers (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

The moral thrill of that victory was immediately followed by a crushing loss to the Montréal Canadiens in a game in which the Penguins allowed six goals to at team on a seven-game losing streak and a team that was lacking many marquee names. That losing feeling was made worse as the Penguins rocketed to a two-goal lead in the first period before ultimately imploding and losing 6-4.

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Take for example their first two games in March. Entering the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 2, the Penguins had won three of four, including a 7-2 throttling of the Bolts less than a week prior. The Penguins went up 2-1 early in the second period before the Lightning tied the game three separate times to force OT. A gutsy goal by Jason Zucker resulted in a statement victory against one of the league’s juggernauts. It was Zucker’s second goal of the game and 19th on the season, which seemed as though it would only further galvanize the team.

However, the momentum quickly dissipated the following game vs. the Florida Panthers when they were dismantled by Sergei Bobrovsky and company. Goaltender Casey DeSmith was outstanding, keeping the Penguins in the game with 38 saves, but the brilliance of Bobrovsky stole the show. Head coach Mike Sullivan reiterated postgame that their performance left a lot to be desired, especially since it allowed the Panthers to move closer to the Pens in the standings.

“I just didn’t think we were good enough. I thought we had our moments, but overall, consistently, shift in and shift out, we weren’t good enough. We didn’t play with the urgency. I just felt like we got out-quicked on a lot of pucks, and we weren’t hard enough on pucks, and it’s an important aspect of winning in this league.”

Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan on his team’s performance after the game vs. the Panthers on March 4.

Penguins Struggling Against Familiar Foes

The statement “the Penguins have trouble beating New York” is heard, memories harken to the 2021-22 Stanley Cup playoffs where they were eliminated in seven games thanks in part to the play of Rangers’ superstars Igor Shesterkin, Mika Zibanejad, and Artemi Panarin. This year though, it’s the team from Long Island giving them fits. They’ve met the Isles four times this season and have lost every contest. As a result, the Islanders have moved into a tie with the Penguins for the first wild-card spot, with the Penguins remaining ahead on overtime/shootout losses.

Pierre Engvall New York Islanders Dmitry Kulikov Pittsburgh Penguins
Pierre Engvall of the New York Islanders battles Dmitry Kulikov of the Pittsburgh Penguins (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Penguins were once again unable to hold a lead in the most recent matchup between the two, once again of the two-goal variety, and once again in the third period. Islanders’ forward Brock Nelson scored the game winner after they tied the game in the last 5:29 of the final frame. In two of the three head-to-head games this season, the Penguins have held leads which were lost in dramatic fashion. The other time was a shellacking. With the Islanders now hot on their heels, Sullivan’s boys will surely have to find another spark.

Jason Zucker and Sidney Crosby Setting An Example

This season has been a coming-out party for Zucker, and has largely been a continuation of the success he has seen since returning from injury partway through last year. He scored the winning goal in the game against the Lightning, bringing his season total to 19. He followed it up with five goals in the team’s next four games, and he now sits comfortably in fifth place in team scoring, ahead of talented players like Bryan Rust and Kris Letang. Considering the fact he missed extensive periods with various ailments last season as well as some time this season, having him back in the lineup and producing like he has has been and will continue to be inspirational.

It’s difficult to ignore what Zucker has accomplished in this recent stretch, let alone over the course of the entire season. He has had his fair share of doubters, as just three weeks ago his name was bandied about as part of various trade scenarios; he becomes a free agent at the end of the season and it was thought the potential return was worth the risk of shipping him elsewhere. (from ‘Madden Monday: ‘If it was totally up to me, I would trade (Jason) Zucker and (Brian) Dumoulin. I would be a seller,’ Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 02/20/2023) This opinion seems unimaginable now, as he has essentially carried the Penguins over the last two weeks.

Along with Zucker, the Penguins’ historic superstar has reached another level in his age-35 season. He leads the team in goals, assists, and points, just as he seemingly has since entering the league 18 seasons ago. He scores big goals in big moments, helping to keep the Penguins in the running for a wild-card spot in a rough-and-tumble Eastern Conference playoff race. A playoff race which seems to be ever changing, as the team occupying the second and final wild card (and thus the conference’s last seed) is currently reasonably being contested by six teams. Crosby has helped keep the Penguins in the race, and in the process has etched his name alongside the greatest player of all time. His 83rd point of the season, scored Thursday in the Penguins’ loss to the Rangers, guaranteed he’ll finish the season at a point-per-game pace, the 18th consecutive season he has done so. The veteran centre now trails only Wayne Gretzky for the most point-per-game seasons in NHL history. Greatness does indeed beget greatness.

Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins 2023 Winter Classic
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins 2023 Winter Classic (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

This version of the Pittsburgh Penguins has been anything but consistent. An inability to hold leads and win games that should be handled easily have certainly not made for easy viewing. Despite this, Penguins’ fans and the rest of the league are witnessing something truly magical on the part of two players from whom they can expect a great deal, and the rest of the season is surely not worth missing.

After all, two steps forward and one step back is still one step forward.

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