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Tuesday Mailbag: discussing full-face shields, struggles in back-to-backs, and the Pens offense vs. defense

Our mailbag feature makes its triumphant return after a two-week hiatus as we discuss a mishmash of topics just itching for debate.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a while, folks, but our mailbag feature is back in action after a couple weeks off the grid. Get ready to continue composing interesting debate topics and toss your opinions out onto message boards (like ours below!) around the NHL and Penguins hockey worlds again. Let’s have some fun.

Here’s a refresher of the rules:

Throughout the week, don’t be shy about throwing my way your burning questions, hottest takes, or most interesting debate topics – NHL-related or otherwise – here in the comments, on Twitter @Pensburgh using #PensburghMailbag, on the site’s Facebook page, or directly to me via e-mail at There’s a solid chance I’ll answer just about anything that’s interesting, just make sure it’s appropriate and abides by our community guidelines.

A while back, in a Stanley Cup Final rematch with the Nashville Predators in October, Ian Cole caught a Roman Josi powered slap shot with his jaw, effectively knocking out his entire front row of teeth and part of his jaw bone, and placing him on the injury reserve for a bit. This, once again, raised questions of whether or not the NHL needs to evaluate the dangers of guys who brave the consequences of throwing their bodies in front of pucks screaming their way towards the net and devise a plan of action involving the potential requirement of full-face shields and cages, much like the NCAA Division I hockey programs require.

After the game, Cole, a former member of the Notre Dame Irish, was prompted with this very question, and he briefly discussed what it’s like having to wear a mask permanently with NBC Sports.

“There’s a little bit of visibility difference, but it’s not that big of a deal,” Cole said. “You shouldn’t be looking down at the puck too much anyway ideally. There might be a time or two when you might lose the puck for a second, but hopefully those times are few and far between.”

Cole also went on to mention how fellow players in the NHL would undoubtedly adjust to a new rule in place that mandates a full mask.

“Guys always get used to it, whether it’s visors or slashing calls now or face-off rules, guys adapt well and they’ll be fine,” he said. “That decision’s way above my pay grade but guys can adapt to that.”

The current rule is that full-face shields are only permitted in the NHL if a player has an injury, is recovering from a past injury, or if there is reason due to an additional medical purpose. And unless grandfathered in, players must wear half shields or visors.

The argument for cages is simple. They provide safety to an area of the body that is extremely volatile to serious, and sometimes life-threatening, injuries. There’s a lot of emphasis throughout the league to dive and block a lot of shots on goal. It’s commendable to coaches and teammates and shows a gritty toughness that can bode well for any player on any club.

The argument against, however, has a lot more firepower. Hindered visibility due to fog build up is the biggest complaint, it seems, as well as a harder time breathing, and complications with communicating on the ice (calling for pucks, setting up plays, talking to refs, etc.) These reasons are completely reasonable and set up a solid defense to not make masks a requirement, but is it enough of a case against the generic “safety is everything” dispute? Who’s to really say. Duke it out in the comments, but play nicely, children.

Ah, yes. The dreaded “why are the Penguins so shit in back-to-backs?” question finally makes its way into my mailbag. The Penguins unluckily drew the short straw this season and have a whopping 19 back-to-backs throughout their 2017-18 campaign. Which, let’s be honest, really sucks – especially coming into this year fresh off consecutive Stanley Cup win. Legs that had to skate all the way into June two times in the past two years are forced to do even more skating in consecutive games just a season later? It’s rough, and though it may not seem fair, it’s the fate of this Pittsburgh team.

Unfortunately, the team doesn’t have good hockey boy Marc-Andre Fleury anymore to lean on for rest for Matt Murray, had an abysmal effort by Antti Niemi in the early stages of the hardest point of the Penguins schedule, and has a defensive corps that just hasn’t been getting it done lately, even with the likes of Kris Letang, who’s been uncharacteristically off his game. To boot, poor puck management and bad decision-making has plagued Pittsburgh for many of the back-to-backs it’s played. Weirdly enough, an 8-6-2 record is disguising just how bad the Pens have looked, which is kind of funny, but it’s been super tough to watch.

But things are finally looking up, and that was evident in the back-to-back games in Alberta against the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. So what’s been working?

It’d be a crime to not commend Tristan Jarry for how excellently he played in net versus the Flames. In fact, he was so good, that our co-managing editor Mike Darnay felt compelled to write up a pretty great piece on him the morning after his outing. Being just his second NHL start, the kid stopped 32 of the 34 shots he faced, while only letting in a power-play goal that ricocheted off of Brian Dumoulin’s skate and a tally in the three-on-three overtime, which is just fine in the current state of his career. He also boasted a .941 save percentage in that Calgary game.

Coach Sullivan was incredibly happy with Jarry’s performance, calling him “terrific” in his post-game media conference. His teammates, including Letang, Bryan Rust, and Ryan Reaves, also gave the young guy a lot of compliments, mentioning that his play was “outstanding.”

To piggyback off of that, Pittsburgh, in and of itself, frankly just played a hell of a lot better in its matchup with the Flames than in any other back-to-back so far this season, and it wasn’t even close. In the first period, the Penguins out-shot Calgary 19-8, basking a familiar light over the team as a whole, and, under the direct words of Sullivan, may have been their best played period all season. Puck control was significantly better, goal crease pressure was brilliant, and the team accomplished what they wanted to.

Here’s hoping they’ve finally figured out a solution to the perils of consecutive games.

On one hand, I want to automatically say the defense, because Letang (other than his improved performance in Calgary) has been a huge let down. He’s attributed a lot of his struggles to his poor timing and has been working on not trying to make the big play after he has a bad turnover or read.

But what’s glaring, even if this statistic is dated and not used much anymore, is his horrific, NHL-worst minus-16 plus/minus rating in 16 games. He also is just behind Kevin Shattenkirk for the most turnovers in the entire league with 28. In the vomit-worthy game against the Winnipeg Jets, Letang recorded six giveaways and was responsible for several goals against. Just recently, against the Canucks, he was on the ice for all four goals Vancouver scored. That’s the very definition of not good. And coming from a future Hall Of Fame defenseman, it’s unacceptable as well.

In an attempt to be positive, the tides are potentially (?) changing for him, and that will obviously bode really well for this team. It isn’t a coincidence that in the game he played better in, the Penguins looked better as well.

Now, on the other hand, the offense has been...strange. At times you’ll see phenomenal plays like the beautiful tic-tac-toe passing between Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel against the Canucks or great set up offenses in the opposing team’s zones. Recently we’ve seen a surge in the last three games, where the Penguins have sufficiently out-played the other team but came up just short on the scoreboard or in overtime.

But in other instances, you’ll see a team riddled with frustration. And their best players, namely Crosby, who has yet to record a goal in what’s now eight games straight, keep failing to perform well on the stat sheet.

In the eight games Crosby has been uncharacteristically quiet in that regard, Pittsburgh has also failed to surpass three goals for – something extremely rare under Sullivan’s tenure. This isn’t to say Crosby has struggled by any means, but it’s weird to not see him producing in the points aspect as often as he normally is. More of a thing to watch for than anything else.

As always, time will tell us just who this Penguins team is, and whether new guys like Riley Sheahan, Reaves, and Matt Hunwick (when he returns) can continue finding their game and their places on this roster.

It’s a little typical fans are experiencing early struggles by it in October, but Pittsburgh always seems to correct its issues as the season goes on.