As the New York Rangers surge in the home stretch and the Boston Bruins march toward history, the Pittsburgh Penguins can’t help but stumble. After the high of defeating the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche on the road on March 22, the Penguins fell back to earth the next night in Dallas against the Stars. Two days later at home, they bounced the Washington Capitals and then set their sights on expanding their lead over the Florida Panthers in securing the final wild card spot with a trip to the spiraling Detroit Red Wings.
What followed was an embarrassment.
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Playing spoilers, the Red Wings handed the Penguins a 7-4 loss that was arguably the worst of the season, even worse than the 6-0 loss to the Rangers ten days earlier on March 18. The Wings have steadily fallen in the standings since the trade deadline, and it was a game the Penguins needed to win for some much-needed breathing room. But they failed, and it was the result of several long-standing issues this team has had converging in one game. And frankly, they are issues that will sink them in the playoffs should they fend off the Panthers.
Goaltending: The Penguins’ Broken Record Problem
It has been suggested both here and elsewhere that due to recent erratic play from Tristan Jarry and the apparent turnaround of Casey DeSmith since late February that the net belongs to DeSmith for the remainder of the regular season (from ‘Mark Madden: Casey DeSmith provides Penguins adrenaline, deserves run in net,’ Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 3/27/23). That clearly was called into question after the Red Wings burned the Penguins for three goals on ten shots in the first period, including a dribbling goal on the power play to open the scoring 11 minutes in. The Penguins managed to stabilize themselves through two periods, tying the game at three, but after that, it was the David Perron show.
Perron scored three goals in the third period for his first hat trick of the season. His second goal and eventual game-winner came on the power play, as he found daylight going five-hole with DeSmith out of his net. It was a goal that should not have happened. But the third goal was the biggest insult, as he didn’t look like he had full control of the puck, yet still flicked a backhander over DeSmith’s right shoulder.
These were saves he needed to make, but DeSmith ended up looking helpless. Worse yet was that he was outplayed by Alex Nedeljkovic, whose own erratic play has seen him split the season between Detroit and the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League (AHL). With DeSmith’s rocky play and Jarry’s inconsistency and fragility, the question now becomes what general manager (GM) Ron Hextall will do to address the issue once the Penguins are assuredly eliminated from the playoffs.
Overall, Inconsistent Effort
Now, on the plus side, the Penguins have been outshooting their opponents on the regular, including all but once, against the Rangers, in this current 2-6-0 skid. However, that may be a byproduct of their desperation, and spotting their opponents two or three goals. As with Detroit. The Red Wings, with nothing to lose at this point in the season, out-hustled and out-hit the Penguins by an 18-6 margin. If anything, one could see this game as a team on the rise meeting one in decline. We shall see next season.
In the meantime, the Penguins have struggled to score in spite of their shooting. Sidney Crosby, who had been on pace for 100 points following the team’s March 16 loss to the Rangers when he picked up two assists, has cooled considerably. Since then, he has scored only two goals in six games and has only five points in the current slide. Evgeni Malkin and Rickard Rakell have both managed two goals, and seven points in the past eight games, and only Jake Guentzel has been a consistent threat during the team’s downturn. As the team lost four in a row, Guentzel picked up three goals and five points, and is the only Penguin over a point a game in the last eight matches with six goals and nine points overall.
Jeff Carter, who had been the snake-bitten scapegoat for over two months, has shown life as of late, collecting three goals, two on the power play, in four games. The mantle recently has shifted to trade deadline acquisition Mikael Granlund. Since his arrival in Pittsburgh, he has scored once in 13 games, and in the team’s current drought has only collected an assist, which came during the victory versus the Capitals. Aside from his failure to shore up the defense or goaltending, Hextall’s acquiring Granlund appears to be his greatest blunder this season.
Just no spark. No intensity. Nothing.— Bob Grove (@bobgrove91) March 28, 2023
It’s a wonder what glue is holding the team together. Head coach Mike Sullivan can’t seem to coax a consistent effort out of his players, and the fans are revolting. If the Penguins can’t get a good jump on a team like Detroit, it’s a safe bet the Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, or Rangers would roll over them in a playoff matchup. They can’t rely on the magic of Crosby to conjure up wins every night – though he is trying – and as has been a problem now for weeks, finding goals elsewhere in the lineup has been tough. Sometimes a team clawing its way into the playoffs can catch one that clinched early off guard and can score an upset. But just as often, all that clawing can find that team spent by season’s end. Which will it be for these Penguins?