The 2022-23 Pittsburgh Penguins have had about six games this season that could all be counted as their worst loss of the season.
That game where they lost a four-goal first period lead to the Detroit Red Wings.
Pretty much any of the games against the New York Islanders.
Losing to San Jose at home the night before the bye week and All-Star Game.
Getting absolutely embarrassed at home by the Edmonton Oilers.
Then on Tuesday night came the king of them, losing 6-4 to the Montreal Canadiens in a game that should have been perfectly set up for a win. It is the type of game that should have been as close to an automatic two points as you can get in the NHL. The Canadiens are at the bottom of the NHL standings, most of their top players are out of the lineup and injured, they came into the game having lost seven games in a row, including an embarrassing 8-4 loss 24 hours earlier. They were on the second half of a back-to-back and had to travel from Montreal to Pittsburgh, all while the Penguins were sitting at home, resting, as part of a five-game home stand and palying to secure a playoff spot.
Yes everybody in the NHL is good. Yes any team can beat any team on any given night. Yes it was an obvious trap game being sandwiched between three huge games against the New York Rangers.
But that game should be a win. Those games against the non-playoff teams need to be wins because you have to assume you might lose one, or even both, of those road games ahead against the Rangers.
Jumping out to 2-0 lead in the game’s first four minutes seemed like a good start, something that has been difficult for the Penguins to come by recently. It looked like they might do what was needed and just roll over a team they should beat.
Then all of the flaws that have been holding the team back and sinking them started to emphatically show themselves.
The lack of focus and attention to detail after goals. That was apparent immediately, as the Penguins gave up a great scoring chance just seconds after Jake Guentzel opened the scoring, and then allowed an actual goal to Mike Hoffman just a minute after Evgeni Malkin’s power play goal. Then the floodgates opened exposing another critical flaw.
The goaltending. Tristan Jarry has been a mess since returning to the lineup, being benched in three of his past nine starts with a sub-.890 save percentage. He allowed four goals on six shots in the first period on Tuesday. You can break down the X’s and O’s on those goals individually all you want. You can talk to me about deflections, and missed assignments, and open looks and everything else you want to throw out there. The bottom line is that four goals on six shots sucks. Being benched in three of your past nine games sucks. Having the numbers he has had since returning sucks.
At some point you need your goalie to make a save. You need them to make tough saves. If your only expectation for a goalie is to stop all of the easy muffins from the blue line and just resign yourself to the fact they have no chance on the tough goals then why does it even matter who you put in goal? Just call it somebody from the American Hockey League on the league minimum contract and call it a day. Every NHL goalie has to face breakdowns and breakaways and tough scoring chances. They are allowed to occassionally stop them.
This is now going to lead to calls for Casey DeSmith to get the bulk of the playing time because he has playing better at the moment. He absolutely is. But we all should know how this ends. Every time DeSmith has to be asked or counted on to play a series of games in a row as the starter, his flaws gets exposed and he starts giving up four or five goals every game.
The end game here is the Penguins do not have a goalie they should be confident with and are looking at a third straight year with the position sabotaging their season.
The Penguins should be getting tired of walking away from games saying, “you know what? We did a lot of good things. We controlled the shots, chances, etc.... just sucks we lost.”
There have been 59 games in the NHL this season where a team has had at least a 69 percent share of the expected goals and actually SCORED four goals. The teams that have done that are 56-2-1 this season in those games. Those two regulation losses? The two teams that did not get at least a point out of that sort of performance? In both cases it was the Pittsburgh Penguins (the February 17 New York Islanders game and Tuesday’s game against Montreal). If all other games on the schedule and their results stay the same and the Penguins simply win those two games they are sitting even clearer in a playoff spot and are still within striking distance of the Rangers for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division.
Speaking of sabotaging the season. Let’s talk about Mike Sullivan’s usage of Jeff Carter and Ron Hextall’s commitment to re-signing Carter. As I said this past week, I am beyond blaming Carter at this point. He is what he is as a player. There is no indication he is not a pro or is taking shifts or games off. He is simply not the player he was in his prime. Father time is undefeated and all of that.
But Carter’s presence on the roster and bizarre usage is absolutely crushing this team. His line was on the ice for FOUR Montreal goals on Tuesday, even though Carter only played eight minutes. Do you realize how bad things have to be to give up four goals in eight minutes? Tuesday was a comedy of errors relating to Carter’s usage, starting with the Canadiens’ fourth goal at the end of the first period.
At that point Carter’s line had already been on the ice for two goals against, the Penguins were trailing 3-2, and facing a defensive zone face-off with 12 seconds to play. Sullivan trotted Carter out there because he is the face-off master that is for some reason consistently being tasked with taking every important draw. He lost it. Cleanly. And Montreal immediately scored off that win.
Carter’s line was then mostly stapled to the bench until early in the third period when they finally touched the ice again .... and immediately gave up a fourth goal. After that goal Carter did not see the ice for another 15 minutes, when he inexplicably saw the ice for two shifts in the game’s final three minutes with the Penguins down a goal and frantically trying to tie the game.
He had been stapled to the bench for nearly two periods, he has five points (and only two goals) in his past 25 games, and he is out there at the end trying to tie the game? Again I ask.
Even as an extra-attacker in an empty-net situation it is a baffling player choice. Which has been the Sullivan-Carter story all season, and especially lately when we have such a massive sampling of data and game play to see just how bad it is. Every big face-off. The start of every over time. Protecting leads. Trying to come-from-behind. After goals. At the end of periods. It is madness.
Either Sullivan is intentionally tanking it as an F-You to Ron Hextall for giving him this, or he has completely lost the plot.
All season the Penguins’ third line was one of their biggest problems. But ever since Carter was demoted from that line and they put together the newly formed line of Rickard Rakell, Mikael Granlund, and Drew O’Connor that line has actually been really good. It is only 30 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time, but in those minutes they are over a 57 percent share of shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger scoring chances, expected goals and are 2-0 in actual goals despite getting heavy defensive zone starts (only 28 percent offensive zone start percentage). It actually has the look of a promising third line.
The problem is now the fourth line has become unplayable. Since the All-Star Break the Penguins are being outscored 4-13 when Carter’s line (third or fourth line) is on the ice. They are outscoring teams 38-28 during that same stretch without Carter’s line on the ice. Making matters worse, the one player that could realistically replace him right now, trade deadline pickup Nick Bonino, is now sidelined with an injury.
The most maddening thing about all of this is so many of these flaws were easily identifiable before the season. The goaltending had failed them two years in a row and they brought back the same duo. The forward depth in the bottom-six was a concern, while Carter’s contract extension seemed rush and unnecessary at the time (though I did not hate THAT much, I have to admit; still .... it seemed rushed and unnecessary). Hextall not only ignored these problems and concerns, he actively made some of the worse.
There is still little doubt in my the Penguins are still going to make the playoffs. The math is still very much in their favor. Even with a tough stretch of games ahead they should still be okay, even if it gets a little closer than anybody wants it to or closer than it should get. But the flaws this team has with goaltending, attention to detail in big moments, and having an entire line that is completely unplayable are probably going to make that a very short postseason trip again.