When a team goes through a slump you need to keep two very important things in mind, because they can both be simultaneously true.
Those two things: It is not only possible for a good team to play like crap for a 10-15 game stretch over an 82-game season, it is also given that it will at some point happen. The other thing to keep in mind is that stretch is not always an accurate representation of what that team is, and it is not always a cause for alarm.
Having said that, the recent play of the Pittsburgh Penguins has a lot of people concerned.
After getting swept in a back-to-back at home this weekend by the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes, the Penguins have now won just two of their past 10 games and have not always looked all that impressive or competent during that stretch. Their playoff position is still strong, and you should not be worried about that, but you might be worried about what you are seeing.
Make no mistake, there are some issues right now.
But as I said above, these things happen over the course of a season.
That is not me trying to be optimistic and build your hopes up. That is me being objective and realistic. I may not know the X’s and O’s of the game as well as others, and I may be wrong on some takes and opinions, but I do know this about hockey — at some point during a season good teams are going to struggle and bad teams are going to win. No team or player is consistent from start to finish over an 82-game season. There are peaks and valleys and you can not get too high on the peaks or get too low in the valleys. Chances are neither one is an accurate picture of your team. Streaks (winning and losing) come with a lot of luck. The big picture still matters.
In the short-term, however, there is no one particular thing that has driven this recent slump. As is the case with any extended stretch of poor results there are a number of factors driving it, from poor goaltending, to a bad power play, to poor puck management, to the top players going cold offensively for a bit. Not all of these will continue.
So let us take a look at which problems are the ones that might be a real long-term concern, and which ones should easily be correctable.
Most concerning problem: The goaltending
This is a big problem right now, and one that might give me the most cause for concern going forward.
Both Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry have the potential to get the job done, and I have no issue with them splitting starts, but neither one has really made a convincing argument to take the job and run with it lately.
Since February 1 (a solid six-week stretch at this point) the Jarry-Murray duo has combined for the second-worst save percentage in the league during 5-on-5 play (.898) and the third-worst all-situations save percentage (.891). You do not need me to tell you that is not good enough. It is not any one goalie that is driving that, either. Both have struggled equally with nearly identical sub-.900 save percentages during that stretch.
Say what you want about the defensive zone play. Question the puck management and the decision-making. Criticize all of it. But every goalie in the league faces scoring chances and missed assignments. Sometimes you need a save, and the Penguins are not getting any.
The reason this should be the big concern is because goaltending is always the biggest X-factor for an NHL team, and especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If you go in with a cold goalie, it can ruin an otherwise great team just the same way a great goalie can lift an otherwise mediocre team.
Getting a big save every now and then will go a long way toward fixing a lot of these apparent flaws.
If one, or both, of the goalies do not get it together nothing else is going to matter come playoff time.
Mild concern: The Power Play
Honestly this might be a lost cause at this point, because if it has not managed to get consistently better by now I am not sure that it is. The unit has scored a couple of goals recently, but overall it still looks like a disjointed mess more often than not, no matter what alignment or lineup they use. They do not always have the shooting mentality you want to see, and neither Kris Letang or Justin Schultz is handling the point duties all that well.
The only reason this is not a bigger concern for me: You do not need a great (or even a good) power play to win in the playoffs. It certainly helps, but there are plenty examples of teams that have gone on extended postseason runs (even winning the Stanley Cup) with a bad or struggling power play. It is not a good unit right now, but it can be worked around.
Concern that can easily be fixed: The defensive structure and decision-making
The expectation was that once Brian Dumoulin and John Marino returned this would improve. The results so far have been mixed, and most recently they have been, well, bad. Especially this weekend, and most especially against the Washington Capitals on Saturday.
Some might say this is too similar to the way the 2018-19 Penguins played, but I am not going to go that far.
This is a different team, with different players, and has shown a great ability to play the style of hockey they want (and need) to play. This group is capable of it, they have proven it, they have shown it. They also have the personnel to do it.
Right now they are dealing with some new faces in the lineup and some players returning from extended absences. There has to be somewhat of an adjustment period there, and I am not ready to say this team can not get back to that level of play based on a 10-game sampling. Especially when this has not been a problem for all 10 games. This might be the one area where I am maybe being a little more optimistic than I should be, but this team has the players to play the way they need to play.
Concern that is of little concern: The offense in general
Compounding all of the issues right now is that the Penguins are also struggling to find the back of the net. When you add an unsustainably low shooting percentage on top of bad goaltending you are going to get some ugly results that make things look overwhelmingly worse they are. It would not be unfair to say that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang — the big-three superstars on the team — have not played their best hockey lately. Even Bryan Rust has gone a little cold outside of his recent hat trick.
This goes back to the initial point here in this post. No player is consistent over 82 games. Slumps are going to happen. This is the first time all season the Penguins, and most of their key players, have gone through such a stretch. They are going to figure it out, and out of all of the concerns with this team right now this is one that I am most certain of correcting. Trust the track record of these players.