The one facet of the game the Penguins were lauded for so much in the past now seems like a distant memory.
To avoid the dramatics, this new “reality” has really only been a sore spot for the team these past three games. The Penguins, as a whole, are still relatively fast on paper in comparison to the rest of the league (who only seem to be catching up as each day passes). However, it’s hard to ignore just how slow this team looks right now, and it’s effectively destroying their victory chances.
To put it in perspective, Pittsburgh only allowed three total shorthanded goals in the entirety of last season. Just 12 games into 2018-19, the Penguins have already hit that mark. And with the way the special teams is playing, that number may skyrocket with the surging Coyotes, a team with a lethal penalty kill that’s already netted seven shorthanded goals so far this season, coming up soon on the schedule.
It’s hard to pin-point one reason as to why the Penguins can’t corrall opposing teams’ penalty kills, but a lot of it stems from their inability to stymie breakouts and odd-man rushes in general — even at 5-on-5. We’ve seen this happen on numerous occasions this season. Matt Murray has surely seen it happen a lot more than he’s happy with, and his discomfort level has been on full display.
Take a look at how busy Murray’s shot maps have been already this season, courtesy of Sean Tierney’s goalie tracking data:
The constant chaos around his net isn’t sustainable, and it comes as no surprise that most of the shots from his crease and the slot have been goals.
Now, take a look at what he had to deal with Saturday night vs. the Leafs:
Look at the amount of Leafs getting successful net-front presence. The poor guy.
Often, the offense will get in too deep or the forecheck will pinch too hard and ultimately get burned on their opponent’s break out. Guys will opt to start line changes at awkward or anti-opportunistic moments, creating gigantic holes on the ice in front of Murray. Gap control and positioning will be staggered or out of place near the slot and goal crease. And the Penguins, most noticeably of all, will just flat out get out-skated in foot races.
The players are voicing their frustrations about their sluggish pace, and are admitting that they need to tighten up defensively, win puck battles, and stop getting regularly out-worked, out-hustled, and out-played. Sidney Crosby blatantly said he thinks the team isn’t playing well. Kris Letang mentioned that they have no emotion and look flat. Mike Sullivan went on record Saturday night to say that he thinks this team is getting “humbled” by the rest of the NHL.
None of these accusations are inaccurate when you consider the Penguins’ recent performances.
This team always seems to play hard in waves, channeling their coined give-a-crap effort meter sparingly in the early season. We saw this same song and dance happen in the beginning of the 2017-18 season as well. It’s nothing new. It’s also nothing to panic about...yet. The Penguins know what they’re capable of, and their 4-0 tear through Western Canada showcased their true identity in a dominant way.
But something truly needs to change if the Penguins want to compete with teams that have bulked up their number of speedy, slippery players and win hockey games. Many will argue that Murray has to steal more games like he did in Pittsburgh’s first meeting with Toronto, but with an already anemic defense in front of him past the top pairing, allowing constant odd-man rushes isn’t going to cut it. He can’t stop every puck and shut down teams on a nightly basis if he can barely collect himself after each porous defensive sequence.
The New Jersey Devils, a team that has successfully utilized its speed against the Penguins in the past, come to town Monday night. A powerful response after getting blown out and shutout on home ice would be a big step in the right direction.