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Penguins’ team defense lacks consistency, continues to struggle

The Penguins’ lack of consistency continues to stifle an otherwise talented team and is forcing them to play from behind.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at San Jose Sharks Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Generally speaking, the California trip didn’t go as well as it should’ve.

It saw the Penguins drop a dud against one of the league’s worst teams in the Los Angeles Kings (even though they dominated possession) after needing a big comeback to win against a seriously struggling Anaheim club the night before. It also featured a complete meltdown in San Jose where Pittsburgh got completely caved in in its defensive zone, and a game against another struggling team in the Coyotes that needed a power play in overtime to earn the extra point.

And Saturday night, the west coast trip concluded by receiving a 7-3 beating at the hands of the Golden Knights, ultimately giving the Penguins an uninspiring 2-3-0 record over the 12-day road stretch heading into their bye week.

Before we open the can of worms, it’s important to preface it all with the fact that a large percentage of these games were the second leg of a back-to-back in a different time zone. Pittsburgh is still one of the most feared hockey teams in the NHL when it’s playing at the elite level it’s capable of. And due to the tight race at the top of the Metro, it’s still in a very good position to make the playoffs.

But the same issues that plagued them in the beginning of the season are still lingering around now past the halfway point, seemingly wreaking havoc at the worst times and causing them to lose games.

Most notably, the Penguins’ ever-present defensive poltergeist.

To be fair, many of the eye sores for the defense this year have been the direct result of sloppiness with the puck by the team’s forwards in all three zones. Too often do we see forwards attempting unnecessarily fancy passes, offering giveaways on a silver platter either in the neutral zone or right in front of their goaltender, or getting too cute in the attacking zone instead of firing on net when the chance is there, resulting in a breakout going the other direction.

It’s also important to mention the ridiculous play of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin this season, and that this criticism shouldn’t blot out how brilliant they’ve been.

But recently, and especially during the Vegas game, those facets of the blue line simply weren’t on display. The scoreboard in just about every west coast contest reflected that.

The Penguins allowed 23 goals against in five games, an average of 4.6 per contest. Casey DeSmith, though being ranked seventh in the NHL in save percentage coming into the Vegas matchup, has slightly regressed (as expected), allowing 14 goals in his last three starts. The newly-extended backup had a great start to the season, consistently stringing together excellent performances between the pipes in Matt Murray’s absence. But now with his struggles in staggered starts due to Murray’s re-gained health, DeSmith’s last three nods have been three-straight losses.

When you see the Penguins play a winded game like they did against two good teams in the Sharks and Golden Knights, the incredible eight-game winning streak just a month prior somehow seems like a lifetime ago. Mental lapses by the defense are once again showing their ugly head.

Shot Map by NaturalStatTrick
Shot Map by NaturalStatTrick

The Jack Johnson/Marcus Pettersson pair, though they played great hockey together in Pettersson’s first 18 games as a Penguin, have recently fallen off a cliff. The newly-acquired defenseman was only on the ice for four even-strength goals against in those 18 starts. In his past five games, Pettersson’s been on the ice for eight. He also allowed a whopping 45 (!) scoring chances against and 23 high-danger chances against in that stretch. Johnson hasn’t looked great either, despite playing better recently. He was on the ice for 12 of the Penguins 23 total aforementioned west coast goals against in all situations with 41 scoring chances and 28 high-danger chances allowed as well. Three goals allowed were empty netters at the conclusion of games, so Johnson on ice for 12 of the 20 goals against with a goalie in the net makes the ratio even worse.

To sum up, they're getting pummeled. Compared to their fellow defensive teammates, that’s roughly two times the amount of raw chances the Dumoulin/Letang and Maatta/Oleksiak/Riikola pairings allowed, made worse still considering overall time on ice, quality of competition, and zone start advantages the low pair receives. You never want to blame defensemen solely on goaltending blips, but it was obvious to predict that a .970 save percentage wasn’t going to last forever. There’s only so much a lights-out goaltending effort can mask until the flood gates re-open.

However, while it’s easy to blame that pairing for mistakes, the team defense as a whole (including that of the forwards) has been lackadaisical. We’ve seen bad pinches on poor reads, poor gap control, and turnovers all lead to goals of both the 5v5 and short-handed variety by the opposing team.

Mike Sullivan didn’t mince his post-game words when asked about what his message was for the team about to enter the bye week and All-Star break:

“We have to be harder to play against. We have to make better decisions with the puck. We’ve got to make sure that we play a brand of hockey that’s playoff-ready and gives us a chance to win night in and night out. I think to this particular juncture in the season we’ve done it at times, but not nearly consistently enough to become the team we’re capable of becoming.”

There’s that word again: consistency.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Cutting back on unforced errors and mental mistakes is priority No. 1 for this team. It’s so difficult to play from behind against talented opponents and expect to win in a sustainable way. Getting back Justin Schultz sometime in February will be a huge boost in that department. His skill, handedness, and experience will push a less talented player getting regular starts into healthy scratch territory, and the defense should benefit mightily because of it.

Speaking of February and Schultz’s return, Jim Rutherford undoubtedly has a plan to improve the roster by the trade deadline as well. We’ll likely see the most expendable defenseman in the general manager’s eyes leave Pittsburgh in the process, as carrying nine healthy guys is impossible. What player Schultz ultimately gets paired with remains a mystery, but it’s sure to lend a helping hand for the defense’s indentity. Let’s just hope an offensive-minded defenseman performs more as a spark than a liability in the Penguins’ end of the rink.

For now though, a much-needed break commences.

(All stats and data courtesy of NaturalStatTrick)