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Penguins in a familiar position with slow start

The Pens didn’t come out the gates this season very strongly — but what else is new?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Minnesota Wild Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2022-23 season has been more of the same for the Penguins. Maybe an initial burst out the gates (4-0-1 to start this year) followed quickly by an extended lull to put them in a hole (a seven game losing streak was the franchise’s worst since Sidney Crosby’s rookie year).

In the past, this has given way to a lengthy winning streak or solid chunk of the season getting good results to push them comfortably into the playoff race. Josh Yohe presented how this year’s team stacked up against recent years after 17 games, and it’s remarkably similar.

In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for Pittsburgh to deal with navigating the start of a season with multiple important injury losses. That has not largely been the case so far this year (knock on wood, demonstratively) — overall team health has been generally good for the Pens this season.

Attention to details, blowing leads in games, third period goals against, special teams, defensive assignments, getting timely saves from goalies — all that stuff on the other hand has popped up to haunt the Pens throughout the year.

Overall at this point, you can read the relief in coach Mike Sullivan’s voice after last night’s 6-4 win against Minnesota that still featured many of the bugs that had previously bit his team in the first six weeks of the season. However, the resulting win can salve over a lot of what ails a team after a start like this.

On how the Penguins still found a way to get two points despite not getting a complete 60-minute effort (namely that lapse early in the second): “Well, it’s important that we got the win. I think that’s the most important thing. I think there was a lot to like about the game. We still have some lapses in the game where we hurt ourselves, so to speak. We got to continue to work at getting better at those circumstances. For a lot of the night, we really liked our game. Obviously, when you when you score that many goals, it helps your chances. But I thought the 5-on-3 goal in the second period was a huge goal for our team. Just a huge momentum boost for us. Those guys have been working hard at it. I was happy for them.”

The Penguins aren’t hitting on all cylinders, but clawing back from the hole they dug after an earlier 0-6-1 seven-game losing streak is the most important thing at this point early in the season.

Pittsburgh might yet have started the turnaround, they’ve posted a 3-1-1 record in their last five games since snapping that extended losing streak. While they will need to continue this trend for another 10 or 15 games to string together a long period of successful results as they have in previous seasons, perhaps the seeds have already been planted and they are now on that journey to claw out of a familiar early season hole.

Special teams has been slowly helping to point in the right direction, the Pens’ much-maligned penalty kill has now done the job on 24 of the last 28 opponent power plays. The power play is a step behind, but at least should carry over some confidence and have something positive to build on after scoring two goals on five chances against Minnesota last night. (Out of charity and a focus on the existing positives, the goal allowed while on the power play last night shall hereby go unmentioned).

It’s well known the Pens are a veteran team, an old one even, with players at just about every key position in their 30’s. That could be a negative in some ways, but also is a positive due to the experience of staying even-keeled during rough times and knowing that it can be overcome. The core of this team knows better than most how to combat a slow start and that the first 15-20 games of a long NHL marathon don’t necessarily need to condemn a quality team to a poor finish. In this regard, experience can be a comfort to know this isn’t the old gunslinger’s first rodeo or taste of adversity.

The challenge they now have to accept due to another slow start is a familiar one. These are circumstances they have dealt with for many years in a row to find their way as the season goes along and try to battle into playoff position and peak in the spring, not that fall. A slow start means that there isn’t much room for error, but with performance improvements or just sheer talent and force of will — like Sidney Crosby’s four-point game last night — these Penguins know better than most that it’s not how a team starts, it’s how long they can stay in the fight and continue to battle as the year goes along.

That’s been the formula for success in the past, Pittsburgh has ended up third or better in their division in each of the last seven seasons. They’ve been able to do that while over-coming slow starts and now find themselves in 2022-23 looking to take on that same battle.