I was going to post this after the Devils game, before I heard the Neal news and the extent of Staal's injury. It almost seems unimportant in light of the bigger issues we're about to deal with, but in some ways these issues are going to take center stage now without those guys to lean on.
I'm no bridge-jumper, so I'll remain cautiously optimistic as with last year that the Pens will somehow find ways to win. Lately they haven't been, and it's easy to point a finger at the injuries, which are certainly a contributing factor. But the injuries mask other issues as well. These Pens, including the healthy ones, don't look like the Pens of a couple years ago, or even last December. In the later days of Therrien and the early days of Bylsma, the Pens played with determination, but also with skill. Highlight reels featured Pens goals. Passing plays like the Devils executed the other night were fairly regular. Remember the Kennedy goal in game 3 of the 09 Finals? Now, some of that magic is gone, even among players who are capable of it. But without grasping at old intangibles, let's look at some things the Pens are dealing with right now. These are hard areas to fill with a trade because they're systemic, but it may not be Bylsma's fault either.
1) Missing nets - It all comes down to execution for the Pens, as we know, and many of their best opportunities are shot wide or fanned on, or they don't have the strength to get to pucks. The amount of times Malkin alone has missed the net is staggering. It's not just him though. Relating to this is accuracy. The Pens throw pucks at the net, but only Neal really seems to be able to pick a spot. Everyone else shoots and hopes.
2) Sloppy D coverage - Martin was an easy whipping boy back in October and November, but given his improved play before his injury, and his absence in December, it's easy to see it's not just him. Even the injuries on the back end don't quite explain it, because it's just as often Orpik messing up as it is Sneep or Despres. The problem isn't with the defensemen individually but with the five-man D coverage. Last year the Pens suffocated their opponents and never let them get good shots on net. Recently, the Pens have done a good job of limiting shots by holding offensive zone time, but there are too many costly breakdowns that result in opportunistic goals for the other team [incidentally, another Pens problem is that they don't cash in on their own opportunities often enough]. The Rangers blocked shots left and right, they collapsed 5 men deep, they hounded the puck. The Pens seem content with passive positioning, but it hasn't been working. Gotta stop letting the forwards wait for the D to do the work and pass to them at the blue line.
3) Forcing plays/bad passing/general sloppiness - They've done a good job in the last few games of holding offensive zone time, but it hasn't often been dominant offensive zone time. The cycle hasn't looked threatening, for one. Passing has been a huge problem too. There was a shift in the last game where there were about 4 or 5 bad passes in a row that kept forcing them further back into their own zone despite the other team changing and applying no pressure. Passes have not been on the tape. It gets worse in the offensive zone, where the passes are poorly thought out, not looking for the open man. I start to wish the Pens would watch the Flyers and Rangers more, who seem to know what to do to create and then cash in on opportunities. The Pens also rely on crisp passing for their transition game, on which their offense thrives. This, unfortunately, does come back to injury. Nobody was better than Letang on this. But the other D have also been touted for their puck moving/transition skills, and it hasn't been as evident this year. I haven't liked us through the neutral zone at all.
4) Bad line combos - This one is debatable for sure, but Bylsma has been reminding me a bit more of last year's playoffs where he refused to adapt his lines when they weren't making sense. Initially I liked the 14-17-18 combo a lot. It worked well for a couple weeks. But then it didn't for at least 6 or 7 games. Kunitz and Neal wanted to be in the same place at the same time and kept getting in each other's way. Instead of reuniting Kuni and Dupuis and giving some more punch to that line, and instead of reuniting the lethal 26-71-18 line, Bylsma did nonsensical things like put Adams with Dupuis while Sullivan was left on the third line. Now with the injuries, more difficult decisions have to be made, and I'm glad I'm not HCDB, but I will be very disappointed if Tangradi isn't given a shot with Malkin or Dupuis. There's no real excuses about lack of scoring wing openings for him. He plays a similar game to Neal. Either slot him in that spot, or let him play 2nd line, but if they call him up, play him on the 4th line, and put Adams or Cooke or Vitale in a scoring line role, there's something seriously wrong there. Nothing to lose at this point, let's see if Big Dog is worth the hype by giving him the NHL minutes he needs to grow. If he's not worth it, at least we'll know and maybe we can get something for him at the deadline.
It's obviously not as simple as all that, but those have been my observations over the last few weeks. There's any number of other factors to bring in as well, but I don't want to dump on the team too hard, especially given the tremendous odds they have to face. I'll stick with these guys to the end, but even decimated I know they have more in them. Time to get back to the disciplined, structured play from last year, and maybe when we start getting healthy the highlight-reel skill plays will start to come back.