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The Penguins have struggled mightily with puck possession

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It’s early in the season, but it’s a growing concern as each game passes.

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Though we’re still in the 2018-19 season’s infancy, it seems that night-in-and-night-out, the Penguins are getting regularly outplayed from a full game perspective. This goes against one of the biggest issues the team wanted to squash coming into the new year, and so far, it’s not looking so great.

It’s true that here and there Pittsburgh will dominate a period or two, but it has struggled to keep that energy stable for a full 60-minute tilt. From an eye-test perspective, opposing teams are hustling more while on the ice, getting the puck in deep with higher success and focus, and setting up an actual offense in their attacking zone more often than Pittsburgh is, and the box scores have reflected that. It got me thinking: how poor do the possession statistics look from a larger perspective? Are they mirroring what I’ve been seeing on the ice, or am I just being too critical of the Penguins’ outings thus far, using an extremely small sample size to back it up?

After considering this further, I decided to test my theory up against both game film and the possession metrics the Penguins have put up in the six games they’ve played so far, and well, other than Kris Letang playing like his swagger-like 2016 self, the numbers weren’t all that pretty.

The Penguins truly haven’t had a commanding performance controlling the puck or maintaining possession since their season opener (read: barn-burner) against the Washington Capitals. In that 7-6 victory, the team’s overall Corsi For average was a fantastic 56.16 percent. Of course, you have to completely forget the first frame ever happened, but in periods two and three, Pittsburgh recorded a whopping 63.27 and 62.07 percent as a team, respectively.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

They dominated the net-front area, made Braden Holtby work for his paycheck with a plethora of chances inside his goal crease, and ultimately used that momentum to come from behind, tie, tie again, and beat the defending champions. More than half the starting roster had excellent puck possession numbers (apart from Daniel Sprong, who to his defense was only given 4:25 minutes of ice time). As for the number of high-danger chances, the Penguins blew the Capitals out of the water. It may have just been the rivalry pumping them up, but the Penguins, despite some poor defensive zone work, played like a complete team with firepower and confidence in their attacking zone, and it paid off in the end. Where has that team gone?

The glaring problem is controlled entries and exists, and the Penguins’ flat out refusal to do them so far. It’s also the fact that they rely entirely too much on the transition game. Whether it be the forwards that never carry the puck on their paddle over the blue line (other than Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin, who often just turn it over once they get across anyway) or the defensemen that only try to tip passes (looking at you Olli Maatta) into the zone without trying to control it and then fail to connect with a forward, this team is looking lazy and disengaged, and Sullivan is visibly furious about it. The Penguins struggle to string together various scoring chances during one sequence, and rather opt for one-and-done scenarios that yields little results. As Malkin so eloquently put it, the Penguins’ opponents are “getting 60 chances, and they are getting two.” Bright spots have definitely been Letang and Brian Dumoulin, but Jack Johnson and Jamie Oleksiak really need to step it up — especially after a poor performance Tuesday night.

I’m not sure if it’s just that the Penguins are slower and older now, if the rest of the league finally caught up with them (it’s probably this one), or if it’s a combination of both, but running down the puck after flipping it against the boards has simply not worked out for them they way they want it to or the way it has in the past.

Moreover, many of my concerns lie too with how Pittsburgh fared against what are considered to be two of the “worst” teams in the entire NHL — the Montreal Canadiens (once without Carey Price) and Vancouver Canucks (without young, exciting talent Elias Pettersson).

The second game of the season vs. the Habs was a tilt in which Sullivan was fuming about afterwards, and he wasn’t shy to express his anger during media conferences. The Penguins were flat, the defense acted like ghosts or were just plain out of position, and the forwards looked sluggish and disinterested in putting in the effort to win the game. An embarrassing 5-1 final, plus an unscheduled hell raiser of a practice thereafter, woke the team up a bit. It was until a week later, when the Penguins traveled to Quebec, that a second period to forget (featuring an abysmal 16.13 Corsi For percentage) led the way for an eventual shootout loss, where Sidney Crosby and Malkin were stoned by Antti Niemi.

The match-up with Vegas was headlined by the superb outing of Kessel and his natural hat trick, but despite the score concluding at 4-2 in favor of Pittsburgh, the Golden Knights blew past the Penguins in puck possession, averaging a 62.86 Cori For percent for the 60 minutes. That included a 75-percent (!) line in third period, and a horrid 25-percent number for Pittsburgh. The Penguins were lucky that Kessel went off, Malcolm Subban couldn’t handle it, and Vegas’ shots didn’t fall, because otherwise, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault would’ve taken over that game.

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When Sullivan is asked to discuss the team’s struggles with keeping the puck on their sticks, he’s been quite direct in his responses. Lateral play has been a huge point he’s been trying to drive home, and that was exemplified during the sinfully boring game against the Canucks Tuesday night. On defense, you could see him screaming “that’s twice!” on the bench after Vancouver entered the zone, got the puck in deep, and successfully passed it back to its forwards. This created some chaos in front of Casey DeSmith and ultimately hit twine. Watching that sequence happen was just a giant slap in the face, because it showed exactly what the Penguins haven’t been doing through the lens of a team that Pittsburgh is expected to beat with ease.

It’s all so frustrating, because the Penguins are generally very good at using the boards to their advantage after forechecking hard and cycling the puck back-and-forth between all their skill players once they gain the attacking zone — especially since their talent is littered throughout the starting lineup. But oddly, those sequences aren’t happening, because they can’t (or won’t) corral the puck long enough to play their game.

“You’ve got to hold onto pucks,” Crosby lamented after the Canucks loss. “That’s how you generate down low. You’ve got to do a better job of holding onto pucks and winning battles.”

These things need to be corrected soon, otherwise Auston Matthews and the surging Toronto Maple Leafs, as well as the rest of the NHL’s fastest, most ferocious forechecking teams, will run all over them. Here’s to hoping tonight won’t be an outright spanking.

(All data is courtesy of the fantastic work by Natural Stat Trick and Corsica.Hockey)