On Thursday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins broke a year-long streak when they lost two games in a row in regulation time. That hasn’t happened since December 2015, in Mike Sullivan’s very first week of being coach.
The lack of back-to-back losses since the new coach’s arrival made for a good narrative: Sullivan came in, studied the problems and then deftly turned the team around. The Penguins’ inability to lose two in a row in regulation in 2016 was part of what made them such an effective playoff team, when a team’s ability to immediately bounce back from a loss is the most crucial. But now, after a year of avoiding back-to-back regulation losses, the Penguins have broken the streak with consecutive games dropped to the Washington Capitals and the Ottawa Senators.
Before Wednesday’s game against the Capitals, the Penguins were 10-4-1 when going into a game trailing after the first period. Now, two games later, they’re 10-6-1. Should the team be worried?
The Worrying Parts
Any loss can be an outlier; games are at least partially based on chance. The problem for the Penguins is that these weren’t just unlucky games. The Penguins spent 120 consecutive minutes of ice time without ever gaining the lead.
The Penguins’ special teams were the most obvious flaw in these two losses Wednesday and Thursday night. Their penalty kill percentage in each of these two games was the lowest it had been for the team in over a month, averaging only 55 percent effectiveness over the two games. This is over 20 percent lower than the Penguins’ overall average, which had been improving prior to these two losses.
The team also failed to capitalize on power-play opportunities that could have closed up the goal differential in each game. When given the man advantage, they seemed unable to set up practiced plays, fumbling to hold the puck in the opposition’s side of the ice.
It’s an 82-game season, and of course every team is going to lose some games. There are lots of excuses. These were back-to-back away games, it’s a long overnight trip from D.C. to Ottawa, and the Penguins were just coming off a bye week. But the problems that these two consecutive losses revealed are issues that the Penguins need to address now. Their greatest asset over this past calendar year has been that they looked like they could take any team in a seven-game series, and a crucial part of that was their ability to bounce back from a loss.
What to Look for in the Future
We have yet to see this Penguins team, in its current iteration, be consistently good for a full season. Last season, the first half saw the Penguins out of a playoff position. Now, hitting the halfway point of the season, the Penguins are going to be forced to evaluate how to maintain the momentum of their successful first half of this season. They’re going to have to evaluate the flaws revealed by these two recent losses. They’re going to have to examine their penalty kill, 24th in the NHL, with a 78 percent success rate. And most of all, they’re going to have to evaluate how they approach the way they stage making successful comebacks.
Two consecutive losses aren’t enough to worry about yet, but they are something that the Penguins need to address or they could signal a worrying slump right when playoff-ready teams need to be starting to gain momentum. It’s important, for the morale of the team and to prove that they still have the ability to bounce back, for them to avoid a regulation loss in Saturday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.