When you lose two games the way the Pittsburgh Penguins have over the past 36 hours (a 5-1 no-show and a 5-4 overtime loss in which you lose a 4-0 first period lead) you are obviously doing a lot of things wrong.
Head coach Mike Sullivan has talked about playing the game the right way and managing the puck better, among the many issues. All of which is fair.
But we also need to talk about some of the lineup and usage decisions that are holding the team back in big moments. Wednesday’s game was a masterclass in what not to do. A lot of it made no sense.
Let’s start with the continued use of the Brian Dumoulin and Jan Rutta defense pairing.
Not only in the sense that this pairing still exists, but the number of minutes that it continues to get.
That pairing was on the ice for three goals on Wednesday night, including the game-tying power play goal by Detroit in the closing minutes. Even when they are not giving up goals that duo is a drain on everything that happens on the ice. They get stuck in their own zone, they bleed chances and shots against, and they give up a ton of goals.
There have been 63 defense pairings that have played at least 225 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season. Here is where the Dumoulin-Rutta pairing ranks in some key possession and goal categories.
Goal differential: 63rd (26.2 percent share; outscored 5-14)
Shot attempt share: 49th (47.7 percent share)
Expected goal share: 55th (43.4 percent share)
Scoring chance share: 56th (44.4 percent share)
High-Danger scoring chance share: 57th (41.4 percent share)
That is about as consistently bad as you can get.
The disappointing there here is that Dumoulin seems to be the biggest problem, as Rutta’s numbers when paired with any other defenseman on the team are SIGNIFICANTLY better.
It is disappointing because you hate to see Dumoulin go out like this. He was such an outstanding player for so long and a key part of two Stanley Cup winning teams, but he just simply does not have it anymore. He has become Rob Scuderi right before our eyes and there does not seem to be any reversing of that trend.
At this point it is not even his fault. He can only do what he is capable of it, and this is it. The issue and main focal point of criticism has to fall on Mike Sullivan and the coaching staff for not being able to identify this.
It is long overdue for Pierre-Olivier Joseph to be getting more ice time. Try Ty Smith. Make Dumoulin the odd-man out when Jeff Petry returns, or potentially even before that. You can not continue with this pairing in any situation.
What makes the situation even more damaging is when that duo ends up on the ice behind Jeff Carter. That is when things REALLY get bad.
When those three are on the ice together this season (nearly 90 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey) the Penguins have been outscored 1-7 and only have a 29 percent share of the expected goals.
Things get even worse when they are all used together on the penalty kill. In 19 minutes of PK team that trio has allowed FIVE GOALS, which comes out to more than 15 goals per 60 minutes of PK time. Just for comparisons sake, only one PK unit in the league allows more than 11 goals per 60 minutes, and none allow more than 14 goals per 60 minutes. That means when that trio is on the ice together the Penguins’ PK unit (which is, overall, the best unit in the league) becomes what is by far the league’s worst PK unit.
Somehow, those three were on the ice, on the PK, trying to protect a one-goal lead as the game was rapidly slipping away from them.
Baffling decision making.
But it did not end there.
Drew O’Connor scored a goal two minutes into the game on his first shift. He ended the night as one of the few Penguins player that was not clubbed over the head in terms of possession and shot attempts. He also got just six shifts after that goal, and played only one shift in the third period.
Kasperi Kapanen (who has his own issues this season) had two assists in the first period and barely played after that.
That all happened in the second half of a back-to-back against a younger, faster team. How do you not use fresh legs like O’Connor (and Joseph) more in that situation?
It also stood out that Rickard Rakell, who has been one of the Penguins’ best forwards this season, did not touch the ice in overtime, an area where the Penguins have been mostly incompetent this season. How? Why? But do you know who did see the ice? Carter. His shift ended with him winning an offensive zone faceoff, winning possession of the puck, and then having David Perron effortlessly toss him from the puck to steal possession and set the wheels in motion for the Red Wings’ game-winning goal. I know the position aspect of Carter being a center and Rakell being a winger, but the optics of Carter getting ice time in that situation and Rakell not getting any are terrible given the way their respective seasons have gone.
Overall the Penguins have a pretty good team. The top of the lineup is still outstanding. The goaltending has been very good. The special teams are back on track on both sides with the penalty kill and power play both surging. But the bottom of the lineup continues to be a major problem with a handful of players holding things back in a big, major way. It needs to be addressed either with different roles and usages, or finding a way to replace those players.
This is not to say that Sullivan should be fired or that he should be feeling in danger. But he is not above criticism. My biggest criticism with him right now is that he seems to break up things that have proven to work the first time they show an ounce of struggle, while he can be stubbornly reluctant to change things that have proven time and time again to NOT work. We are seeing a lot of the latter right now. It needs to change.