As we near the end of November, the Pens' hot 7-1 start becomes a distant memory the longer this baffling slump continues. The Pens were running away with the Metropolitan Division lead and looked like they would clinch in January. Now, the Pens have surrendered their division lead to the Washington Capitals and are entering a game with a lot unsolved issues against the Anaheim Ducks who are second in the NHL. And it's the same issues over and over again.
What is even happening?
Josh Yohe from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review asked an interesting question during the Devils game:
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>Have the Penguins become stale? Or are they merely in a November funk that is irrelevant in the long run? Thoughts?</p>— Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_Trib) <a href="https://twitter.com/JoshYohe_Trib/statuses/401890411087532032">November 17, 2013</a></blockquote>
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Looking at the last five games, I say a bit of both. Every team falls into a funk at some point in the season. You just hope it isn't in the spring. However, there are some problems that have taken root and aren't going away easily.
Furthest from the list of issues are special teams. In fact, special teams have been among the few bright spots. In the last five games, the Pens had power play goals in four of them (20% success rate) and killed 13 of 14 penalties (92% success rate). While I prefer to see Paul Martin starting on the first power play unit in place of Kris Letang, there's little to complain about when the power play is the most consistent means of production.
Marc-Andre Fleury has also been a positive force for the Pens. He hasn't been perfect, showing a lack of composure on one play and making a game-changing save the next. Concerns about him are still high and rightfully so. Fleury has let the Pens down one too many times in the playoffs. But those who are pointing fingers at him because of the recent slump are missing the real problems.
First, let's consider the Pens as a team and how they're viewed by the rest of the League. There isn't a single team in the NHL that doesn't circle their calendar when they see a game against the Pens coming up. Opposing teams may want to beat them because there's bad blood or to simply make a statement, but nevertheless, everyone has a jump in their stride when they play the Penguins. They know for 60 minutes, they need to be on top of their game or let the two best players in the world burn them. Teams are usually up for the challenge, but the Pens seemingly aren't. Call it poor execution or call it complacency, but the Pens haven't been ready to face the best version of their opposition. No matter who they play, there's an element of sloppiness which teams will greedily jump on to defeat the Pens.
No side of the Pens' game is hurting more than their offense. Eight goals in their last five games is no way to win games. We've been hearing a lot about the need for net-front presence which is key; dirty goals are the way to go when scoring has become a challenge. For as talented this team is, they seem to doubt themselves very quickly and settle into a passing game rather than setting their sights on the net. What results is blind cross-ice passes right to a defenseman waiting to counter or a complicated passing clinic that does absolutely nothing. Out of everything, the turnovers have to be the most maddening.
What's most troubling about this trend is we've seen nothing like it since Dan Bylsma has been head coach. Venturing back to the disastrous first half of the 2008-09 season, the Pens were averaging 2.93 goals/game through the Valentine's Day Massacre. Then Bylsma takes over, implements his offensive-minded system, and the Pens take their scoring to a new level. In those final 25 games of the season, the Pens were scoring 3.64 goals/game. They morphed into a completely different team and inked their names in history as a result.
Since then, the Pens' end-of-season average has always been more than three goals per game (excluding the 2010-11 season when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sustained season-ending injuries)... until now. The Pens are netting only 2.75 goals/game and 1.75 in their last five. It isn't fair nor accurate to compare these to end-of-season averages, but just for kicks, the last time the Pens had a lower goals/game average than their current number was in 2003-04 (2.32).
The Pens have to be better than this and it starts with individual effort.
Don't get me wrong, I'm definitely seeing effort when I watch the Pens, but there's a lackadaisical aura to it. I would compare it to someone in an industry for 30 years but makes silly rookie errors because the job has become more than second nature to him. This is where I wonder how much complacency has to do with this funk. I don't feel that spark that's become synonymous with Penguins hockey since the post-2005 lockout era. Is that spark something we've lost as depth players like Maxime Talbot and Matt Cooke have moved on to other teams? Or is Dan Bylsma failing to inspire his team?
Or is it just a typical funk that every team falls into every season?
While I don't see a need to panic, I don't think these are issues to take lightly nor will they solve themselves. I think the Pens need to re-evaluate their plan of attack and make it simpler. Players need to find their shooting touches instead of making that third or fourth pass. Most importantly, they need to do a better job in being a pain-in-in-butt to play against. Make players moan and groan when they see the Pens are next on the schedule. Right now, the Pens feel like a frustrated team and the opposition can and has been taking advantage of that.
Hopefully all the Pens need is a kick in the pants, otherwise, Ray Shero might resort to more drastic measures.