Lately the Pittsburgh Penguins have not quite played as they did going into the 2012 All-Star break when they won seven straight games. The Pens were on a roll and completely in sync with one another. The MNK line was unstoppable and carried the Pens to their season-high winning streak.
Despite being pulled from the game Sunday afternoon against the New Jersey Devils, Marc-Andre Fleury has been the best Penguins player since the all-star break. Fleury is solely responsible for beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-4 in a shootout in the first game after the break. The Penguins seemed to be destined to lose the game as they had been completely outplayed for a majority of regualtion. Fleury stopped a multitude of odd-man breaks and breakaways against the Leafs to take the game into overtime.
“It was a little disappointing to give up four goals definitely, but it was fun that we came back into it and won in a shootout,” said Fleury following the Leafs game. “I didn’t feel as sharp either as before the break.”
Fleury may not have felt sharp, but he is one of a few key players who has carried over quality play from the all-star break. If the Pens did not have the Flower in net they could be riding a four game losing streak.
Fleury had many timely saves against the Boston Bruins Saturday afternoon. In particular, Fleury stopped a Brad Marchand backhand with less than thirty seconds in regulation after Brooks Orpik mishandled a dump-in attempt by Zdeno Chara.
Miscues such as Orpik’s in the Boston game have seemed to take place much more than the Penguins would wish. The Penguins have not been able find any chemistry since the second half of the season has begun.
They played extremely sloppy in their first game in a home-and-home series against the Maple Leafs. In their second game against the Leafs they played a much better game but got shut out 1-0 by Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer. The Pens have not been able to bring all their key components together and play their north and south style of game.
The Pens have played terrible in their defensive zone and giving up too many odd-man breaks making life difficult on themselves. They have not been picking up the third man when back-checking into their own zone. This is due to laziness and lack of communication.
To shake things up, the Pens tried to give Fleury a break since he has been carrying the goaltending responsibilities for nearly all of their last 25 games. Even when Dan Bylsma gave back-up goalie, Brent Johnson, a chance to shine, the Pens could not find a way to tickle the twine against the Maple Leafs.
Johnson stopped 23 out of 24 shots in the contest, but was unable to post a win.
“I felt alright, obviously disappointed in the loss, but it was a step in the right direction for myself. I tried to simplify things out there and things were working pretty good tonight. I felt confident and I felt good. Our guys played well,” said Johnson. “One little chance for them (Maple Leafs) and they made good.”
Unfortunately, the goaltending change did not create the type of game the Penguins coaching staff is looking for from their team. They played better defensively in the second Toronto game and pretty well in Boston, but Sunday afternoon, the Devils exposed their poor back-checking and defensive zone coverage.
The MNK line has been the number one culprit regarding the lackluster back-checking and defensive zone coverage. With the exception of Evgeni Malkin, this line has not been scoring at the same clip as they were before the all-star break. They have been on the ice for opposing teams’ goals more than any other Penguins’ line since the break. No one expects the MNK line to produce at the ridiculous pace they were ten games before the all-star break, but this does not excuse them from playing solid defense.
Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz were all a minus four against the New Jersey Devils Sunday afternoon. Each player is a minus seven in the past four games. This line has to play better defensively. With better communication, stopping and starting in their defensive zone, this can be accomplished.
This line is not solely responsible for the substandard play of the Penguins since the break. They are scoring the overwhelming majority of the Pens’ goals game in and game out. The Pens win if the MNK line plays well and scores.
Going forward, the Pens need more secondary scoring. They received a huge game-winning goal from Matt Cooke against the Bruins Saturday afternoon, but they have not had enough consistency in the secondary scoring category.
Opposing teams are starting to match their top scoring lines against the MNK line and the MNK line is playing too much in their defensive zone instead of in the offensive zone. This is taking away from the MNK line scoring goals and no one else has picked up the slack.
The line matching issue should not be too concerning once Jordan Staal returns to the Penguins line-up. Staal, Cooke and Tyler Kennedy would have been matched up against the Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrick Elias line giving the MNK line less defensive responsibilities. The top line of the Devils outplayed the top line of the Penguins and this was the difference and has been the difference in the Pens’ losses since the all-star break. Opposing teams’ top lines are outplaying the MNK line.
Teams go through rough patches when things are not lining up into place, but once Staal returns, the Pens should start playing a persistent brand of winning hockey. If Sidney Crosby returns to the Penguins, the sky is the limit for how far the Pens travel in the playoffs since they will have all three of their star centers in their line-up.