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Be concerned, but do not panic about the Penguins right now

Looking at the Pittsburgh Penguins recent stretch, some concerns, and some thoughts.

New York Rangers v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins were able to steal two points from the Nashville Predators on Sunday, mostly because Sidney Crosby would not let them lose a fifth game in a row.

It was a much-needed two points to help the Penguins stay ahead of the Washington Capitals and maintain some cushion to avoid slipping into a Wild Card spot. But it was not exactly an encouraging performance as they looked rather lifeless for most of the game, right up until Jason Zucker’s game-tying goal midway through the third period.

After getting shutout by the New York Rangers on Thursday (their third straight loss to their likely first round opponent) and then getting outplayed in the third period of what was a tie game against the team just behind in the standings, it was the third straight game where they just did not look inspiring against a playoff team. Add that to back-to-back losses to Colorado and suddenly you have a losing streak and a stretch of seven losses in 10 games.

Not really what you want to see with the Stanley Cup Playoffs just around the corner.

There is some reason to be concerned, but there is also some prisoner of the moment type of stuff when we panic about every little slump during the season.

A few thoughts:

  • The Penguins outplayed Colorado in those two games. They simply did, and I am not sure how that can be disputed objectively. They dominated the shot, scoring chance, and expected goal numbers and absolutely deserved at least two points in those games, and maybe all four. Those two games following what have been their best win of the season on the road in Minnesota were at least encouraging signs. Were there some things you want to fix in those games? Sure (like immediately giving up goals after score) but the process was sensational. The result was not there. That happens sometimes. Prior to that stretch the Penguins were 9-3-2 in the 14 games prior to that (a stretch that featured their first gauntlet of playoff teams and Stanley Cup contenders) with great underlying numbers. Process and results were there. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the way they were playing.
  • With that in mind a lot of the concern surrounding this team lately is based largely on the past three games (which have not been great) and the fact they lost three in a row to the Rangers (it could be a problem; the Rangers are good, and even better after the trade deadline).
  • There are some real concerns on the roster right now. Brian Dumoulin’s play has been a point of emphasis lately, to the point where Mike Sullivan actually reunited Kris Letang and Mike Matheson on the first defense pairing (a great move, by the way!). They also need to get more from lines that are not the Sidney Crosby line, and not just offensively. The depth scoring has actually been fine. It is there. Without Crosby and Malkin on the ice at 5-on-5 during these past 10 games the Penguins are scoring 2.40 goals per 60 minutes, which is more than acceptable for a team’s bottom-six. The problem is when the Crosby line is not on the ice they are giving up too much.
  • Some of that is no longer having their fourth line that was so good defensively. Part of it is the Malkin line struggling. Part of it is Tristan Jarry slumping (and he is).
  • Let’s address some line combinations first here. I love the idea of swapping Rickard Rakell and Bryan Rust on the first two lines. Rakell and Crosby seem to feed off of each other very well (in what is an admittedly small sampling) while Rust and Zucker could bring some aggressive forechecking and strong defensive play to Malkin’s line.
  • Another potential swap that I would consider? Teddy Blueger on the third line between Evan Rodrigues and Kasperi Kapanen. I love what Jeff Carter has done overall, but if he is not actively scoring goals he is not really doing much to help. He is not driving a line. The problem there is you are making your fourth line even worse and really losing that defensive shutdown aspect it has had. Not ideal. But you would have three potentially excellent lines to roll (and hope for the best on your fourth line).
  • Now we get to Jarry. He has been great this season overall and bounced back in a significant way. But he has won just one of his past seven starts during this recent 10-game stretch and has a sub-.900 save percentage (.894). They have earned just two out of a potential 14 points in his seven starts, with that only win coming against the Detroit Red Wings. They are 2-0-1 in Casey DeSmith’s three starts during this stretch. Not saying that there should be a goalie controversy, but they have lost two one goal games with Jarry in net and two other games (Colorado and Washington) that were one goal games before some late empty-net goals. The difference between a .915 or .920 save percentage on those 226 shots he has faced and the .894 mark he has had is 3-5 goals over 10 games. That might be another win or two, or another game that at least gets to overtime and gains you another point. It is tough to win with sub-.900 goaltending.

I am sure there is an X’s and O’s reasoning for some of the rent struggles, but I also wonder how much the human element has a factor here. Not just the fact they are not fighting for a playoff spot, but the frustration of playing well against the best team in the league and not getting any reward for it, and the fact that their likely first round opponent has a goalie that seems to be in their head. I keep going back to the fact that when they have played the Rangers they have been pass-happy even by their own Penguins standards, almost always looking for the perfect shot instead of just taking what is there and hoping for traffic or a rebound or a follow up chance. That mentality has seemed to seep into games outside of the Rangers games.

Whatever the case may be, there is time to fix some of this, there are some options they can try, and Jarry getting back on track can help fix a lot of these perceived flaws.

We will just have to see what happens over the next couple of weeks.