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Sour starts are putting the Penguins in a big hole

What happened to the best first period team in the NHL?

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Pittsburgh Penguins v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a new emerging problem this season. It’s perhaps an odd and unexpected one as well, because they were once the best at the league in it but now aren’t any longer.

It’s how they start games. Captain Sidney Crosby embraced the idea of getting out to better starts in his post-game comments last night from a 6-1 loss to the Devils that started being in a very quick 3-0 first period hole.

The early results for a hockey team are so crucial to the results of the game. It’s just common sense, but worth saying, that scoring early changes the way the rest of the game will unfold and puts a team on the path to winning. Falling behind early, especially by multiple goals, puts them on the path to losing.

In the best part of the Penguins’ season so far, from November 18th - January 21st, they had a 20-4-1 record. They also out-scored opponents 33-12 in the first period of those 25 games.

From Jan. 22nd to the present, Pittsburgh has been out-scored by a 12-4 margin in the opening frame of their games. And they only have a 6-4-3 record in that span.

While the goals allowed has increased, the shocking number is the offensive output drying up with only four total goals in the last 13 first periods.

One indicator that has been lagging is the measure our friend and yours Jesse Marshall came up with, called the very scientific “Penguins Forecheck Barometer”. As Jesse put it:

The forecheck is the foundation the house of Mike Sullivan is built upon. A few years ago, I tweeted that you could discern what kind of night it was going to be for the Penguins by focusing on the forecheck of the first 10 minutes of a game. If it was showing its usual signs of life, you could bet the Penguins were going to give a good account of themselves. The opposite is equally as true. The absence of a strong forecheck means the Penguins are vulnerable.

It’s a good article from Jesse to break down how the Pens layer pressure in their 1-2-2 structure and generate turnovers and often offense off their forecheck as well and as much as any team in the league when it is working at it’s best. When it is not working at it’s best, it opens up lanes for the other team to advance the puck and often bite Pittsburgh on counter-attacks.

New Jersey’s first goal was a perfect example of this, with Evgeni Malkin and Jeff Carter executing their responsibilities, but Marcus Pettersson being just a step slow to adjust to a nice play made by Pavel Zacha. That sent the Devils off on a 2-on-1 rush, and one bad bounce off a defender’s skate later, the puck was in the back of the Pens’ net.

Getting back to the effectiveness of the forechecking system will likely result in both cleaner starts against defensively, as well as more offense to be generated. It’s a step that’s simple to diagnosis, more difficult to execute in the grind of a long season.

However, the execution will have to improve. The Pens have only held a lead one time in the last 13 games after 20 minutes. It’s fairly impressive that despite being in first period holes that they’ve rallied back to win many of their recent games. It’s much easier to play with a lead though and work the clock from out in front. Clearly, like anyone, that is what the Pens will hope to do in the future. Getting off to better starts and working their system in a more effective way will be the ticket to do it.