The 3-3 Pittsburgh Penguins face some questions heading into a three-game-in-four-day stretch that will see them host the New Jersey Devils in between visiting Madison Square Garden and the Verizon Center.
Chief among those questions: Just what is going on here?
The preseason favorites at 8-1 have dropped three of their last four games after opening the season with convincing road wins against the Flyers and Rangers. Two of the three losses have come on home ice at the hands of perennial Eastern Conference bottom feeders the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders.
Some fairly evident trends are emerging early in this season. The goaltending has been spotty, to put it nicely. Puck protection in the defensive zone appears to be a foreign concept to this team. Puck movement through the neutral zone is gobbled up with the greatest of ease. Getting the puck deep into the attacking zone and maintaining possession with a relentless forecheck (a lynchpin of this team’s offense for years) has been replaced by various and sundry ill-advised cuteness at the blue line.
Perhaps most notably, the Penguins special teams have taken a nosedive.
In their first two games (both wins) the Pens went 4-of-8 (50%) on the power play and killed 8-of-9 (89%) power play opportunities against. In their last four games the Penguins are 1-for-14 (7%) with the man advantage and have allowed four goals in 14 power plays against (72%).
The pace set by the first two games is unsustainable for 48 games. Scoring on half their power plays is obviously insane and killing penalties at an 89 percent clip would put them nearly at the level of last year’s New Jersey Devils as (the greatest penalty killing team of all time). But the deterioration since their 6-3 throttling of the Rangers has been precipitous to the point of forcing change.
Head coach Dan Bylsma spent Wednesday’s practice working on a different power play look:
Evgeni Malkin moved to the right point, although during practice he floated down to the half wall as well. James Neal, who worked the point for the first six games of the season, is back to his old position down low. Defenseman Kris Letang moves to the left point with Sidney Crosby on the half wall and Chris Kunitz at the net.
The move makes sense, especially for James Neal, who lead the NHL last year with 18 goals scored on the power play from that spot down low.
It’s a step in the right direction (although it will be of little help if the Pens continue to struggle to gain the offensive zone). One can only hope it provides a spark for the rest of the offense. For as bad as the Penguins have been with the man advantage, they have not been much better with even strength.
Since the first period in Winnipeg Friday night, the Penguins have netted only two goals—and one of those came late in the third period Tuesday night after the game was well out of hand. That’s two goals in 165 minutes—and only one of them meant anything.
This would be poor for a team with even half the offensive capability of the Penguins. The face that a team with Crosby, Malkin, Neal and Letang is putting up these numbers is hard to process.
Perhaps the Penguins working out their offensive kinks will take pressure off of the defense and goaltending.
Marc-Andre Fleury has been positively pedestrian in his four starts (2-2, 2.95, .890, one hook), putting even more pressure on the defense. This isn’t to say the defense has been bad (it hasn’t), but it does lack depth.
The top-two pairings of Brooks Orpik/Paul Martin and Kris Letang/Matt Niskanen have accounted for a disproportionately large amount of ice time.
The Niskanen numbers are skewed due to his injury, but before leaving the game in the first period against Ottawa Sunday night, Niskanen averaged 21:21 per game.
It’s plain to see that Dan Bylsma has little faith in anyone other than his top four horses. The Niskanen injury has forced Bylsma to reinsert Simon Despres alongside Kris Letang where he began the year and move Ben Lovejoy up to a full-time role alongside Deryk Engelland.
In a shortened season with many games compressed into a small period of time, Bylsma is running the risk of burning out his top defensemen.
Of course, it’s only six games. Every season—even a shortened one—will have its share of bumps in the road. Granted, it is jarring to see the Penguins behind the Islanders in the standings, but that should serve as nothing more than a reminder of how young this season is. We are only one-eighth of the way through the 48-game schedule. And it's not like the Pens are 0-6; they're 3-3 with three road wins.
The Penguins are better than they have shown in the last four games. They know it, fans know it and other NHL teams know it. It’s time for the Penguins themselves to believe it, and play like the team they can be.
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