Penguins Update: Too Early to Worry? – Pittsburgh Penguins – PenguinPoop Blog

Penguins Update: Too Early to Worry?

Coach Mike Sullivan likes to use a simple catchphrase when the Penguins pay attention to the details. He calls it “playing the right way.”

Six games into the new season, the Pens have lived up to Sully’s standards twice by my humble estimation. Namely, last Saturday’s shutout victory over Nashville and the scintillating follow-up triumph over Washington on Wednesday night.

Notice I didn’t include last night’s win over Florida, a 4-3 nail biter played before a packed house at PPG Paints Arena.

Yes, we secured two points, albeit with an escape that would’ve done Harry Houdini proud. And a win is a win is a win, to coin an oft-used phrase. But, at least through this admittedly early stage of the season, the Pens appear to be experiencing a post-Cup funk.

Honestly, I was surprised when our guys didn’t stumble out of the blocks last year. The fact that they didn’t was an amazing feat all by itself. And it’s perfectly understandable, to a degree, that the Pens aren’t firing on all cylinders, following on the heels of another glorious Cup run and abbreviated summer.

Perhaps I’m guilty of setting the bar too high. I keep expecting the black and gold to snap back to their form of 2015-16, when they dominated foes with a lethal combination of skill and speed.

Truth be told, the Pens haven’t been that team for quite a while. Roughly coinciding with Kris Letang’s neck injury last February, their share of shot attempts began to dip, and quite dramatically. The fall-off continued right on through last spring’s playoffs, when we accounted for only 46.4 percent of total shot attempts as compared to a healthy 52.1 percent the previous postseason.

Forced to stand and defend on a frequent basis, the Pens became more of a counterpunching team. The fact that we won a Cup playing a style we’re really not cut out for makes last spring’s triumph all the more remarkable.

Unfortunately, the trend seems to have carried over. While our shots on goal are virtually even with the opposition, the Pens have mustered 49 percent of the total shot attempts through six games; 47.5 percent in their last five. Which means, once again, we’re losing the possession battle. It’s a key indicator that something’s amiss, especially for a team that’s built to play in the far end of the rink, instead of vice versa.

Our performance in the faceoff circle hasn’t helped. With a success rate of 46.8 percent, the Pens are lodged squarely in the bottom third of the league. Although Sidney Crosby, Carter Rowney and newcomer Greg McKegg have generally acquitted themselves well, the team absorbs a huge hit when Evgeni Malkin takes the draws (35.9 percent). And we definitely lack a go-to guy like Matt Cullen, who won 56.4 percent of his faceoffs during the recent Cup run.

Not by coincidence, we’ve had to work much harder in our own end. Factor in the league-wide crackdown on stick infractions, which serves to hinder a team that favors stick-on-stick defense like the Pens, and it’s easy to understand why we’re off to a bit of a rough start.

So how do we regain our championship form? That’s a tough question, with no easy answers. To my untrained eye, it’s starts with better attention to detail in the defensive zone. Our guys just don’t seem to compete with the same zest on their side of the red line. Sullivan has often stated that offensive opportunity starts with good defense, and he’s right. Take care of business in your own end, and the goals will come. Especially true for a highly skilled bunch like the Pens.

Concerns persist over our mix of players, scrambled to an extent by off-season turnover. When push comes to shove, the Pens seem to lack the requisite size and sand to thrive in the dirty areas. A case in point…the final minute of last night’s contest. With the game on the line, the Pens couldn’t gain possession of the puck or make even a simple clear. We certainly could use a couple more guys with, say, Patric Hornqvist’s competitive fire, not to mention a little more bulk.

On the plus side, it was good to see fourth-liners Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney get more ice time. Sullivan needs to make full use of his bottom six, first to help those players find a rhythm, but also to guard against maxing out stars like Crosby and Malkin. He’ll also need to sort out how best to employ bruiser Ryan Reaves, who’s struggled to keep pace thus far.

While I’m handing out plaudits, Matt Murray seems perfectly capable of carrying the load in goal, barring injury of course. The power play’s red hot. And Olli Maatta continues to channel his rookie season, when he wowed us with his heady play and potential.

To sum up, it’s a long season and we have a long way to go. However, with 11 of our next 15 games on the road, the Pens face a murderous stretch that may well define their season.

Let’s hope they’re up to the challenge.

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  1. Jim's Gravatar Jim
    October 15, 2017 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    After watching the first 6 games I say Rick, Matt Murray is in for a rough ride this season. So goes Murray, so goes the Pen’s. I can remember in 2016 there were times when I, you or Coach could have played nets and the Pen’s would still have won. 15 shots a game. Now we get 45 !!
    I do not have that warm and fuzzy feeling Rick. Yes we should all worry !! We are not the fastest team in the league any more and we certainly are not the toughest to play against. Something had better change quickly…

  2. The Other Rick's Gravatar The Other Rick
    October 15, 2017 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Hey All,

    Just saw MAF is on IR with another concussion. That is really bad news. I hope that he clears this hurdle quickly.

    • Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
      October 15, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for letting us know, Other Rick

      I’m so sorry to hear about this. In many ways, Marc-Andre’s time in Vegas started out like a fairy tale. He had three brilliant games and really seemed to embrace his new role as the leader and face of a franchise.

      Let’s hope and pray this is only a temporary setback, and that Flower makes a speedy recovery.


  3. The Other Rick's Gravatar The Other Rick
    October 15, 2017 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Hey Rick,

    Excellent, Excellent thoughts. I was in the process of writing something as well, which you will see soon, however, you brought up a lot of really good points I didn’t but wanted to comment on. Aside from my favorite whipping point, the team “D”, you are absolutely right, the Pens aren’t doing well at all in the FO circle. They lost a great Center when they lost Cullen. Had they been able to hold on to Bonino, it may not be quite as bad, but the loss of Cullen really has hurt. McKegg has been better than I was fearing, but he ain’t no Cullen. That is one of the reasons this past off-season I was hoping for the Pens to land Duchene or Little (before he reached a contract extension), both were beasts in the FO-circle.

    The big question you ask is spot, how do the Pens get back to Championship form. I hate to say it, but change just may be the key. It is way to easy to rest on your laurels after winning 1 championship let alone back-to-back championships. The Pens may really need someone who hasn’t hoisted a Cup yet to bring that hunger to work your tail off back to the club.

    As I noted in my post, the Pens, who regularly blocked 15+ last year and the year before only managed to block 6 shots last night. That could be a sign that the team is no longer willing to do what it takes. They may think they are all above rolling their sleeves up and bringing it like Hornqvist does every shift (and may I addthe way Kunitz use to).

    Shot blocking isn’t the only marker of desire; let’s also look at the number of games where the Pens daintily skate through 60 minutes barely initiating body contact. Compare that to the games where they act like bulls in a china shop and you see the difference between the SO win against Nashville and the debacle that was the Chi game.

    I haven’t really looked around the league yet to see if there may be players outside the org that could provide that hunger to win a Cup, but that is why I am constantly pushing for some of these kids who may have something to prove, like Sheary did 2-years ago, to come in and breath life into these automatons, robotically phoning in their games.

    • Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
      October 15, 2017 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      Hey Other Rick,

      Great comments and observations, and always.

      I thought Mike Sullivan had a very interesting quote following the win over the Panthers.

      “I wish our guys would adopt a little more of a shooting mindset,” Sullivan said. “We pass up opportunities to put the puck on the net when we’re in pretty good areas because we’re looking for that next play, and a lot of times, that next play never materializes.”

      Amen, Sully. I think it’s a subtle, yet important difference in the way we’re playing, one that may contribute to our possession issues. When you get the puck on net, you force the other team to react while creating a certain degree of chaos, which is basically what other teams are doing to us.

      When the Pens try to make the perfect play and the extra pass, it seems they wind up coughing up the puck as often as not.

      The old “kiss” principle…as in, “keep it simple, stupid.” Tough to do, I’m sure, for a super-skilled team like the Pens.



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