In September 1994, Fox Mulder, narrating the opening scene of the first episode of the second season of the X-Files said “We wanted to believe…” That was during the Mario Lemieux era, about one and a half years after the Penguins 2 Stanley Cup. This past summer, in the afterglow of our Penguins repeat Stanley Cup victory, I really wanted to believe; I wanted to believe in a Penguins 3-peat. Thirty-two games into the season, or almost 40% of the season, our Penguins are currently on the outside looking in, tied with the Rangers at 35 points but trailing that last Wild Card spot by tie breakers. Worse, our Penguins have played 2 more games than the Rangers, so they have a chance to put some distance between them and us.
It was only back on Dec 2, 10 days ago, that the Penguins had won their 4th game in a row, two of them against the hapless Sabres. Unfortunately, the Penguins followed that 4 game win streak up by going 1 – 3 in the next 4 games, winning only 2 games over a 5 game home stand. Actually, their performance over the 5 game home stand, in terms of the play-off race wasn’t even quite that good; one of those two wins the Penguins earned didn’t come until Over-Time (OT) against a divisional opponent. Therefore, although the Penguins picked up 4 of a possible 10 points they could have earned, their opponents picked up 7 (Isn’t NHL math fun? Our Team has Point % of 40 while our opponents ended up with a Point % of 70 for 110%)
Don’t get me wrong, when I look for silver-linings, I can find them; there are bright spots to pin our hopes. The Penguins fore-checkers are getting back into their groove. Over the first 10 games the Penguins team Corsi for (CF) was 453 v Corsi Against (CA) of 479 for a difference of -26 but have fought back to 489 to 431 CF to CA for a difference of +47 over their last 10 games. During the Penguins latest disappointment, this time against the Avalanche, the Penguins squeezed off 69 shot attempts (40 of them on goal) to the Avalanches 49 shot attempts. We can also look at the play of Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel, Tristan Jarry, and now Dominik Simon and see rays of light piercing the darkness.
Unfortunately (I feel like I am doing a good news bad news routine) the Penguins still have serious defensive breakdowns. Last night, the team gave away the puck 16 times. Among the giveaways that I am having a hard time trying to see past to get back to those rays of hope was Kris Letang’s give away to Nate McKinnon in front of the net. Yes, Tristan Jarry was equal to the task and denied Colorado’s superstar but under the sheer weight of giveaways, Jarry as good as he was, wasn’t perfect.
Mark Barberio found the range, blasting a slap shot from center point that deflected off of Riley Sheahan and over Jarry’s glove. The shot, however, was set up by a giveaway; the Avs broke down the Penguins’ left side of defense with Olli Maatta and Conor Sheary trying to seal the play to the outside but Colin Wilson was able to slip a pass into the slot. Phil Kessel was “Johnny on the spot”, covering up his defensive zone, but rather than trying to skate the puck out of harm’s way, or dump it to the corner or boards where it would be less dangerous, he blindly redirected the pass up to the center point. If a Penguin would have been trailing the play, he could have reversed the play for quality look for a Penguins’ shooter, but as it was, another giveaway: another opponent shot and this time a goal.
Kessel would try and make-up for the play by notching his 15th goal of the season from Malkin and Guentzel during a a late scrum around the Colorado’s net with the goalie pulled, but it proved too little, too late.
I really am trying to believe, in fact, I do believe that this team has the right players within the organization, for Mike Sullivan to mold into a 3-peat, but I can’t fight the feeling that the team isn’t playing the right players and sitting the wrong ones. Unfortunately, I also believe the pressure to chase that 3-peat is causing the team to make bad personnel choices.
Odds and Sods
Dominik Simon continued to impress; he was defensively responsible (0 giveaways, 1 blocked shot, and a +/- of 0) and made another dazzling offensive play, this time at the blue-line to keep the puck in and give himself some room to operate. Coach Mike Sullivan took notice of Simon’s play and had him taking many shifts with Penguins Captain Sidney Crosby.
Jarry also continues to impress; he stopped 26 of 27 shots. Two of those stops came in the first period, bookending a shot blocked by Letang, off of the stick of McKinnon. He also flashed the leather after givingaway the puck himself to Blake Comeau. Comeau passed the puck to Carl Soderberg while he was trying to get back into the crease. He also made a blocker save on short-handed breakaway by JT Compher who stole the puck off of Crosby, late in the second period.
Nate McKinnon thought he had a goal at 15:56 of the second period. McKinnon made a good move to enter the Penguins’ zone and then get around Letang. He fanned on his shot, getting just enough of it to get it toward the net. Expecting a more solid shot on net, Jarry over-reacted to the weak shot that did go on goal and it slipped in through the 5-hole. The goal was over-turned when the Penguins challenged the play as off-sides. Letang pressured McKinnon enough at the blue-line to cause him to make an extra move at the blue-line pulling the puck back away from Letang. The linesman originally thought the puck had crossed the blue-line before McKinnon pulled the puck back away from Letang and into the blue paint. Had McKinnon got the puck fully across the blue-line on the move it would have had to go fully across the blue-line for an off-side call, so it would have been a good play. From the over-head camera view, it appeared that the puck never truly entered the zone but I was surprise that the goal was over-turned when they showed the ice-level view from the Toronto feed; from that view it didn’t seem clear cut enough over-turn the goal.
Ryan Reaves was a victim of what I feared would start happening when the Penguins traded for him. In a pushing/shoving match with a couple of Avs, Reaves was whistled for a roughing call. In typical inconsistent application of the rules, the referees chose to call Reaves for what others routinely get away with or at least get an even-up call out of. The penalty didn’t cost the Penguins a goal, but having to kill the penalty surely didn’t help the Penguins either.