Recent games for the Pittsburgh Penguins have not been going well. A record of 3-7-0 in their last 10 games only amplifies the issues that have dawned on the team. With the rest of the Metropolitan Division hitting a torrid pace, the playoffs are not a certain thing for the Penguins if they are not able to turn their play around.
As of March 11, the Penguins are still sitting in third place in the division with 86 points, but have slipped further behind the leaders. The Washington Capitals lead with 90 points and the Philadelphia Flyers are right on their tails with 89 points.
Many players on the team have been struggling, but there are some who have been feeling the effects of a bad slump more than others. These are players who, even prior to the six-game losing streak, were already seeing a downward turn in their play.
Bryan Rust has struggled immensely since the start of February. He has only potted six goals since the All-Star break, and three of those came in one game so he has only contributed to at least one goal in only four games since Jan. 31.
Rust has also been failing to contribute with assists. In the 19 games since the All-Star break, he has picked up only seven assists. It’s a curious case when his linemate is Evgeni Malkin, who has been the team’s best player. When playing with a player like Malkin, more points would be the expectation for any player.
He may still be leading the team in goals, but that won’t last very much longer if this lack of production continues. Rust is the type of player that can break games open for the Penguins with his timely scoring. He is currently in a five-way tie for second-most game-winning goals (GWG) on the team. We will go on to talk about three more of those five in a moment.
It may be bizarre to say that a player that is producing at over a point per game pace is in a slump, but Sidney Crosby has not been the same player since returning from core muscle surgery. He may be one of the five Penguins with four GWG, but other facets of his game have not looked great.
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The plus/minus statistic is one that most people don’t like to take into a lot of consideration. However, Crosby is an uncharacteristic minus-eight this season. If play doesn’t change, this could be the first time since his rookie season that Crosby finishes as a minus player. He finished only a minus-one in his rookie season. Through 20 road games this season Crosby is also at an abysmal minus-17, only picking up 12 points.
Crosby put a lot of emphasis on improving his defensive game over the past few seasons. He finished fourth in Selke Trophy voting last season as the league’s best defensive forward, receiving 34 first-place votes. To be a minus player this season shows that he has to get back to improving his defensive play. It could still be an anomaly for him, but flipping the script defensively can go a long way in helping the team win.
Jared McCann may have just tied his career-high in points, but he has not scored a single goal since Jan. 14 against the Minnesota Wild. He has played 21 games in that time and has recorded seven assists and is a minus-9.
The Penguins have relied on McCann’s goal-scoring; He is another one of the five guys with four GWG. The issue is not a lack of effort from the 23-year-old forward, though. During this 22-game goalless streak, he has posted 55 shots on goal, going a whole game without a shot only once. The shots have been there; they just need to start finding their way past goalies.
McCann was one of the most important pieces to the Penguins’ success with the injuries piling up. Only missing three games this season, he was a steady producer and could be counted on in clutch situations. This 22-game drought is the longest he’s had since his rookie season with the Vancouver Canucks when he went 25 games without scoring. His scoring ability may be streaky at times, but it is bound to break eventually.
Yet another Penguins’ player with four GWG, Brandon Tanev hasn’t scored a single goal since his game-winner in the first matchup against the Washington Capitals on Feb. 2. Since that goal, he has only picked up a pair of assists and has gotten zero points in the last 11 games.
Not being hyper-focused on offense and seeing not-so-high numbers is perfectly fine, after all, he was brought to the team for his speed and defensive play. It is that defensive play, however, that has seen a slight decline over the past few weeks.
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The line of Tanev, Teddy Blueger, and Zach Aston-Reese has been the team’s shutdown line. Aston-Reese has missed 12 games with a lower-body injury, but Tanev and Blueger have remained together on the fourth line. The shutdown line has not been doing its job since then; Tanev has been minus-five and Bluger minus-four. Both have been almost completely left off of the score sheet, as well. In the past 12 games, the only point between the two comes from a Blueger goal in a 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 18.
Coming off of a career-best year in goals and assists in 2016-17, the Penguins paid Justin Schultz handsomely for his contributions as an offensive defenseman. Since signing his new deal, he has been far from the same player. It is easy to see that the problem with him has been around for a few seasons now.
This season in particular, however, has been egregiously bad on both sides of the puck for Schultz. He may have suffered an injury that held him from play for an extended time, but he has still played 46 games and only has 12 points and a team-low minus-13. Last season, Schultz played in only 29 games and was still able to produce 15 points and be even at plus/minus.
With John Marino having a stellar rookie season, Schultz has found himself relegated to the third defensive pairing with Jack Johnson. The Penguins have been watching a steady decline in Schultz’s play since the signing of his $5.5 million deal. Thankfully for the Penguins, this is the last year of that deal, and unless Schultz can make a complete change in his game, it would be hard to imagine him in black and gold any longer.
The Penguins’ have to act fast on changing their fortunes for the remainder of the season. Their 15 consecutive playoff appearances could be in jeopardy if things don’t turn around. It will take a whole team effort, but if certain players focus on their game and improve the rest of the team will follow suit.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.