There is every reason to be frustrated with the Pittsburgh Penguins right now.
They have not only lost six games in a row, they have lost them in pretty maddening fashion.
In three of those games they have had multiple goal leads more than halfway through the game 3-1 in Edmonton, 5-2 against Boston, 3-1 in Buffalo), including two in the third period.
They have already lost three games this season when leading after two periods, matching their total from the ENTIRE 2021-22 season.
It is a bad, terrible stretch of hockey that deserves every ounce of criticism it is getting because there are real flaws and concerns. The bottom-six, especially the third line, is struggling. Brian Dumoulin looks like he has aged in dog years as a player. And the one position that has been a constant question the past three years — goaltending — is still one now. I am still trying to figure out where Casey DeSmith was going on Buffalo’s second and third goals on Wednesday night, because he definitely was not following the puck.
And the special teams?
But there is a fine line between being critical of a bad stretch and throwing everything out. It also works the other way, with a fine line between thinking “hey, everything is fine” and ignoring the train coming at you on the tracks.
Here is where I am with this team right now: They have not been good for the majority of their games this season, but I still think they will ultimately figure it out and have a good team overall.
Keep in mind, after 15 games last year the Penguins were 5-6-4, had just lost eight out of 10 games (with zero regulation wins during that stretch), and were near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
They followed that stretch by immediately going 17-2-1 over the ensuing 20 games with a 10-game winning streak thrown in. I am not saying that sort of turnaround is just over the horizon for this particular Penguins team. It is a different roster and every season is different. What I am saying is that things can turn around QUICKLY early in the NHL season. Look at the standings for the first month of any season and there always weird results that do not stick for the long-term.
The obvious asterisk to that comparison is that for the first part of last year’s season the Penguins played a lot of games without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their lineup. That certainly played a role in some of those struggles when you had to have Evan Rodrigues and Jeff Carter be your top two centers. This year, both Crosby and Malkin are completely healthy and playing very well.
My concern here is the Penguins hit their wall between 2012 and 2015 because their depth beyond the bottom-six was terrible, and that is a definite red flag with this year’s team. Especially the third line. But is that enough to sink the entire season?
When I look at this current skid (and the first month of the season as a whole) I see two major problems that are sticking out.
Special teams are without question the biggest issue.
The penalty kill continues to bleed goals against and is one of the worst units in the league, and it’s not just the result of bad goaltending. The entire system seems broken and the changes in on-ice personnel could be playing a big role. This is where your depth players not being good could be a concern.
It’s tough to win when that unit is consistently spotting the other team a goal or two every game. Given the fine line between winning and losing you can’t just keep spotting teams a goal every game and expect it work out.
And there is the goaltending.
I am not ready to give up on the defensive changes or write them off, and I am certainly not ready to call the offseason or the roster as a whole a failure. But I do think one area the front office deserves some justified criticism is continuing to run back the same goaltending duo. This has been the biggest Achilles heel the past two years (for various reasons) and they keep running back the same duo over and over again expecting better results.
It would be unfair to paint goaltending as the only problem (or even the biggest problem) with the team right now or its play.
But I also do not think it is unfair to say that with better goaltending they probably win the past two games against Boston and Buffalo.
How different do things look right now, and how different is the attitude and vibe toward the team, if they are 6-4-1 with back-to-back wins instead of 4-5-2 and on a six-game losing streak? It’s probably very different. Maybe dramatically different.
The Tristan Jarry-Casey DeSmith duo has managed only an .860 save percentage over the past six games, and for as careless as the Penguins have been at times, and for as bad as the defense has been at times, that’s not all on bad defense. Sometimes your goalie has to come up big, bail you out, and help you snap a losing streak.
Sometimes you need a save.
The past two nights they have not gotten a save.
The goaltending situation is such a volatile thing with this team right now because they have to make a decision on Jarry at some point, but I am still not sure anybody really knows exactly what they have in him. He has been at opposite ends of the spectrum so often in his career that it’s tough to know for sure what he is. DeSmith is a run-of-the-mill backup that is prone to awful games where he can not seem to track the puck, with last night’s game being exhibit A of that. Buffalo’s passing on the second and third goals to tie the game was good, no question, but it was not so good that an NHL goalie should have left the net completely wide open on both of them. Those can not happen, and it sent the team down its path to defeat.
I get the frustration and the concern. The criticism of the play is spot on accurate right now. But I think there is room at the table for “hey, the team stinks right now, but I am not ready to say it is still going to stink in a month or further down the road.”
That is where I am with this team.
I think the special teams problems are fixable, and while the goaltending is a question it should get better. Those two things getting on track would fix a lot of the problems right now.
They just have to get there.