After two straight losses to kick off the 2020-21 season for the Penguins, the natives are restless. No one had a long preseason or time to prepare, we’ve all just been thrown into the deep end. So far, Pittsburgh hasn’t done well getting out-scored a total of 11-5 at the hands of the Flyers.
The problems are clear and the reasons why they fell are numerous. On one hand, it’s only two games. Nothing that has happened will determine the outcome of this season. It is a shortened year, but there’s still 96.4% of it yet to come. The Pens clearly have a lot to work out and improve on, but what areas are big problems and what can more easily be shrugged off? Let’s rank it!
—Just take a deep breath, gripe about what went wrong but let’s move along
Evgeni Malkin and the second line
Malkin just got held without a point in the season’s first two games for the first time since 2015-16 (I think that season turned out alright). It’s disappointing and fair to say that the Malkin line was invisible. They were. It’s also true that Pittsburgh needs a lot out of them, via talent and ability they are a group with Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust that has the speed and skill to help tip the scales in the Pens’ favor. They failed to do so in a major way. Talent will come to the top, and it’s been two games. If we get 5-6-8 games in and this line is a non-factor, it’s fair to sound alarm bells. For now, it’s disappointing, but that’s hockey.
The first pair defense
Kris Letang has been on ice for 0 5v5 goals for and four 5v5 goals against. Brian Dumoulin isn’t much better at 0 GF, 3 GA. This is not great, but is also just a bump in the road. Despite playing heavy minutes, Letang has never had more 5v5 goals allowed than games played. Water always finds its level and this pair will too, in terms of being on ice for less bad goals and on ice for more good goals to break it down. Letang’s xGF% right now is 41.8%. That’s awful. In his 14 year career, he’s only had one season of a sub-50% xGF% (49.0% in 2013-14). This will be a positive regression, and it is likely to happen quickly. It’s fine to point a finger at Letang not performing well in the two games against Philly, but also let’s realize that it’s two games.
Sweating a bit
—It’s early, but it’s not looking great!
Who do the Pens start on Sunday afternoon against the high-powered Washington Capitals? The Caps have 8 goals in two wins so far this season, an easy 4.0 goals/game my math tells me. And that’s with Alex Ovechkin having zip zero, stingy with deniro (which you also know isn’t going to last much longer). Jarry has given up 9 goals in 71 minutes with a 7.57 GAA and a .710 save%.
Hey Tristan, Antti Niemi called — he wants his stat-line back (7.49 GAA, .797% in 128 ill-fated minutes with the Pens)! Jarry will rebound eventually, of course, but his stint as Pens’ starting goalie couldn’t have started any worse. Goalie performance can snowball, positively or negatively, based off confidence. The game can be just as much mental as it is physical for that position, so it’s fair to wonder what the immediate future looks like for Jarry after getting yanked and possibly ceding the crease to DeSmith for next game. (And if DeSmith plays well and beats the Caps, he’s playing the next game against the Caps..)
The third pair
The Pens’ third pair has rightfully given everyone a major complex after what happened last playoff with a loose link coming undone. Cody Ceci got a quick hook and was a scratch for the second game. Chad Ruhwedel replaced him, but also took a penalty. However, Ruhwedel also did great to limit opponent’s chances.
Mike Matheson is the other point here. He also took a penalty (more below) and also is not seeing the ice and making poor decisions with the puck on his stick.
This pass can't happen. Matheson has all day to skate and make a read here. He skips right over Malkin, who is wide open in the middle, and opts for a homerun pass into triple coverage. It's a turnover faster than you can say turnover. Make the easy play to the superstar. pic.twitter.com/s4XCh8r8fV— Jesse Marshall (@jmarshfof) January 16, 2021
This needs to be an area that is a strong point for Matheson. He has to help in transition, not turn it over. Any defenseman can turn it over in a similar situation, sometimes it happens, but Matheson is under the microscope for limiting his own career by making poor choices like this. Thus it needs to be pointed out to illustrate what his issues and areas of improvements are. Can he make the improvements? It’s only been two games so we’ll see. But early results of the third pair, no matter who has been used hasn’t been great.
—Good reasons to be pulling ones hair out
Discipline (or a lack thereof)
The shitheel Flyers always bring out the worst of the Pens, but this two game set was difficult to watch some self-inflicted wounds. Pittsburgh took a too many men penalty in each game. Mike Matheson etched ruts to the box in each game. Jared McCann laid a borderline disciplinary call worthy elbow to a guy’s head. The Pens went shorthanded nine total times, and only killed off 66.7% of them (and allowed another goal shortly after one expired). This is a big problem and a real problem that needs to be fixed. It’s simple to say, tougher to execute but stay out of the penalty box. Stop killing momentum by giving the other team a golden chance to score (which they did too much).
The Evan Rodrigues experiment
While Malkin is taking a lot of the slings and arrows and drawing most of the attention, let’s point out that Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel also are empty production-wide while at even strength. A lot of this is because Evan Rodrigues isn’t holding his end of the bargain as a top line winger, looking a lot more 2020 Conor Sheary than 2016 Conor Sheary. Will Rodrigues get a third bite at the apple? There doesn’t look to be a lot of reason why he should, even if Kasperi Kapanen isn’t quite ready to join the lineup after clearing his COVID quarantine. Try Brandon Tanev, try Drew O’Connor, try anyone. But I think we’ve seen all we need to see of Rodrigues on the top line. This didn’t work. It wasn’t a bad effort, because there wasn’t much else to do, but it’s got to be time to adjust and move on by trying something new for Crosby and Guentzel next game.
With all those worries, a closing thought on a positive note. Sidney Crosby has two power play goals. Casey DeSmith came into the game cold last night and did well to steady the tide. Brandon Tanev has two goals and has been awesome. Mark Jankowski has been hitting close to his best case scenario. Jared McCann has two points. There are a few silver linings, even if there is still an awful lot of work and refinements to be made.
What is your single biggest worry moving forward (key words) for the Penguins?
This poll is closed
Evgeni Malkin / second line
Kris Letang / first pair defense
Mike Matheson / third pair defense
Taking too many penalties
The third wheel for Guentzel-Crosby