The Pittsburgh Penguins may have gained a point on Tuesday night in a 5-4 shootout loss to the New York Islanders, but they had a lot of problems. For starters, Bryan Rust and Evan Rodrigues both exited the game early on and left them even more shorthanded up front while already playing without the suspended Evgeni Malkin. They also had a dreadful night on the power play, giving up a shorthanded goal and completely wasting an overtime opportunity in ugly, ugly fashion (while nearly potting an own goal on the empty net during the delayed penalty call). It was bad.
The more significant problem, and one that has seemed to be a little bit of a concern lately, was their inability to cleanly exit the defensive zone.
Two of the Islanders’ four goals in regulation came on appalling turnovers from normally stable defensive players (Teddy Blueger and Brian Dumoulin) in the defensive zone. Even when the puck was not ending up in the back of the Penguins net, they were still struggling to get the puck out of the zone cleanly and smoothly and were creating far more work for Casey DeSmith than they should have been.
The Islanders’ forecheck was all over them and the Penguins did not seem to handle it well.
For most of the season the Penguins have been one of the league’s best defensive teams by pretty much every objective measure, whether it be shot attempts, scoring chances against, and yes, even goals against. They also have one of the league’s best penalty killing units. They are — or can be — an excellent defensive team. The best way to be a good defensive team? To not have to play defense in your own zone. The best way to not have to play defense in your own zone? Quickly get the puck up the ice to your teammates and transition to offense.
The recurring theme during Tuesday’s game seemed to be a lot of “hope” plays where they would simply try to chip the puck off the glass or wall and hope that it ended up going to a teammate, or an open area where a teammate could get it. Far too often it resulted in a turnover, giveaway, or icing call that put them right back on the defense. One of the most constant offenders was Brian Dumoulin, who misplayed a puck along the way that turned into the Islanders’ fourth goal early in the third period, and another bad exit pass that was easily picked off in the neutral zone that resulted in an extended shift.
I do not think this has been a season-long problem, nor something that has consistently popped up. But it has shown itself against faster teams with an aggressive forecheck. Carolina. Florida. The Rangers. It is not a coincidence that those are also the teams the Penguins have struggled with the most this season.
Dumoulin’s recent struggles have been well documented at this point, and I do not want to keep piling on. But he seems to be one of the most consistent offenders lately, and it is probably a big reason why he was demoted down to the second defense pairing. It is a disappointing development because even though offense has never been a big part of his game, he was always a very good skater and could make a good pass out of the zone. He was never a statue back there and has been one of the better complements to Kris Letang that he has ever played alongside. But players with his skillset do not tend to age gracefully, and it seems we are starting to witness the beginning of the not-so-gentle decline. It is a concern.
But it is not JUST a Dumoulin problem. The lack of development from John Marino and Marcus Pettersson has also been a problem, especially since the two do not seem to play well with different partners. They always seem to work well together, but neither one has proven capable of carrying their own pairing.
We have spent much of the season talking about depth scoring, wingers for Evgeni Malkin, goaltending, and special teams (mostly the power play). Right now, though, I feel like this is the area the Penguins need to do the most work on to fix because it is going to take care of so many other issues. Spend less time defending, goaltending is not as much of an issue. Get out of the zone quicker and get to offense, you are going to create more offense for youself. Play with the puck more, you draw more penalties and swing special teams your favor.
I do think the Penguins need to think about managing some minutes for guys like Dumoulin and maybe even Letang. Tired players make more hope plays, and these guys have a lot of mileage on the tires for their careers. I know everybody is worried about playoff seeding, but it does not matter what seed you are if your players are not fresh and not playing at their best.