It’s been a tough go for the Pittsburgh Penguins as of late. After waxing Toronto by a 5-2 score on Tuesday February 18th, the Pens were on top of the world. It was their third straight win and pushed them to the top of the competitive Metropolitan Division.
Since that point, the wheels have fallen off in the form of a six game losing streak. This from a team that manages to avoid a two game losing streak all the way since November now finds themselves unable to do anything but lose.
Much like success having many authors and bylines, there are reasons and contributing factors for explaining the how and why. Here are some of them, in no specific order.
#1 Bad luck
Sometimes there’s nothing more at play than a lack of fortune. Like Sidney Crosby firing a puck at an open net against Los Angeles earlier this week, only to strike iron twice and fail to score. It would be a circumstance often repeated
#2 Injury bug still biting
It’s probably no real coincidence that the team is 3-7-1 without John Marino. Losing him, to go along with all the other injuries, has finally seemed to all catch up with Pittsburgh at the same time. But don’t forget about the hole created by the loss of Zach Aston-Reese, absent for the last seven games.
via @NatStatTrick— ck (@404ResponseCode) March 1, 2020
ZAR-Blueger-Tanev: 422 mins, 54%xGF, 26% OZ faceoffs
xxxx-Blueger-Tanev: 180 mins, 41%xGF, 40% OZ faceoffs
Some analytical models have Aston-Reese as a true contender for the league’s Selke trophy as the best defensive forward. He won’t have a real chance to win it, since for some reason only offensive contributors catch the eyes of voters for this defensive award. But, point being, ZAR’s impact to help eat tough assignments, defensive zone starts and suppress the opposition’s offense has been a very meaningful factor this season. Without him, Brandon Tanev and Teddy Blueger have been a lot less effective in those areas.
#3 Falling behind early
It’s tough to win in the NHL these days when going into a hole. In the six games of this losing streak, the Pens have given up the first goal of the game — drumroll please — all SIX times! Consistently getting in a position to have to chase the game (not to mention the natural internal pressure of an “aww man, here we go again”), it’s not a pretty picture.
#4 Power play goes cold
The Pens’ power play is 1 for 18 over the six game losing streak. They’ve had an average of 5:11 per game on the power play in this stretch. Yet they’ve scored one goal. (And it came from Jason Zucker deflecting a puck while on the second PP unit).
Little more to add then just the obvious that this needs to turn around for a team to be successful, especially a team in “hold on” mode like the Pens have been with the injury situation.
#5 Defensive personnel usage (and performance)
Hardly new territory, it’s been written here for weeks that the Pens’ strategies to endure the loss of Dumoulin haven’t worked out well.
It has to be acknowledged that removing any team’s second and arguably third best performing defensemen will result in a drop in play. That’s unavoidable, some losses can’t be replaced, no matter the depth. Some of that is no doubt in play while analyzing the Pens without Dumoulin and Marino.
At the same time, the coaching decisions and subsequent player performance hasn’t worked. First pair Jack Johnson has been a total clamp on the Pens’ best player’s offensive abilities. Down the lineup, Juuso Riikola has been scratched for right handed players to play on the left side. It’s been questionable at best, costly at worst when Riikola’s Zach Trotman sees two pucks go in off of him.
For some reason the team has avoided playing Marcus Pettersson on the top pair at all costs. That’s a shame, if only for change’s sake when the entire group was struggling. If the whole (flimsy) argument to support Jack Johnson is that “hey, he plays better sheltered down the lineup on a lower pair”, well then move him to a lower pair already!
And the odd part is, there’s an obvious natural alternative just staring the coach in the face.
Pettersson - Letang
Johnson - Schultz
Riikola - Ruhwedel
That defense — which is still a compromise an less extreme than perhaps a more idealistic looking grouping — would likely perform significantly better than the one they have trotted out so faithfully. Yet, no changes were ever made.
#6 Offensive slumps
Bad timing hits in pairs. Jared McCann has no goals in 16 games. Brandon Tanev hasn’t scored a goal in 12 games and has no points in the last seven games. Dominik Simon has no points in his last eight games. Teddy Blueger is also without a point in the last six. Patrick Marleau, Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary haven’t scored in the still very brief three games they’ve been on the team, Sheary’s production the most critical due to his position on Sidney Crosby’s wing. Crosby himself has one goal and no assists in the last six games.
All of these cold streaks happening at the same time have been tough to overcome.
Add all of that together, and you’ve got the recipe for the bad kind of six pack. The good news for Pittsburgh is some of this ought to solve itself. Brian Dumoulin and John Marino are very close to a return, one (or even both) could be back as soon as the next game on Tuesday. That solves a lot of problems simply getting players of that caliber back. The power play fluctuates wildly, and what is cold this week may turn hot soon. Similarly the puck luck the team isn’t getting now (both offensively and defensively) won’t be down forever.