Checking in on the Penguins quest for a three-peat
No week with a losing record is a good one, but considering the circumstances, things could be worse for the defending champions. After a positive week of 3-0 hockey from the Penguins – though admittedly against more feeble opponents – I expressed that the team had a more notable test in the upcoming week. Given a record of 1-2-0 in three games, one might be tempted to say that they failed. However, in these three contests that all ended with a final score of 4-3, the Penguins did show some positives, though plenty of negatives still reared their heads.
Against the Rangers on Tuesday, the Penguins looked pretty good, outshooting the Blue Shirts by a final tally of 44 to 29, holding leads of 1-0 and 2-1, and going 2 for 2 on the penalty kill. However, their backup goaltending and a bit of bad luck combined to lose the contest for Pittsburgh. Tristan Jarry let in 2 relatively soft goals, and Kris Letang had a pass go off his skate before floating over Jarry’s shoulder for the Rangers’ game-winning goal. Without those 3 goals, the Penguins have this game easily in hand, but the week started out poorly for Pittsburgh as a result.
On Thursday, the Islanders came to town, and the Penguins looked like they wanted to prove that what happened on Tuesday had been a fluke. Again, the Penguins outshot their opponents and carried the play for most of the game. They held a 3-1 lead with 5 minutes left in the game, but they let in 2 goals before those 5 minutes expired, meaning they needed overtime to get the win. More importantly, they let a division rival earn a point in the standings when it looked like the game belonged to the Penguins. Luckily, Hunwick scored the overtime winner for the Pens, preventing a complete meltdown.
On Saturday, the Penguins’ first period against the Maple Leafs brought back memories of some of the early blowouts the team suffered. Pittsburgh skaters barely looked interested in playing the game for the first 20 minutes of the game, missing passes and losing battles all over the ice. They went into the dressing room lucky to only be trailing 3-0. The team did show some much better play after replacing Jarry in net with less experienced Casey DeSmith. The Penguins pulled to within 3-2, but a deft deflection by Tyler Bozak left the Penguins trailing 4-2 at the end of the second period. The Penguins pulled to 4-3 with over 2 minutes left and even hit a post with 30 seconds remaining, but they couldn’t get that tying tally, dropping Pittsburgh’s weekly record to 1-2-0.
Overall, the issues from this week seem to be at goaltender and in maintaining focus. Don’t get me wrong, Tristan Jarry has exceeded expectations as a serviceable backup while Matt Murray is out with a lower body injury. At the same time, Jarry’s five-hole has been exposed for several goals that should have never been. His rebound control has been shaky, also costing the Penguins some important goals against. DeSmith did well in his 2 periods of relief, but this team clearly needs its number 1 starter back to keep pace with the strong Metropolitan Division.
As far as focus, it should concern fans that efforts like the first period against Toronto seem to happen too often this season. At least this time the Penguins didn’t let it snowball into a 7-1 loss like they have before, but falling behind 3-0 in the first period is no recipe for success. Their ability to claw back and make a game out of it shows some progression compared to the earlier part of the season, but periods like these need to disappear if fans want to believe they are looking at a team capable of winning the Cup yet again.
As for a couple of other things to keep an eye on, look out for the length of Justin Schultz’s absence from a lower body injury. Chad Ruhwedel has done fine in the lineup this year, but Schultz brings important aspects to the Penguins’ game that will be missed until he returns. Also, Sullivan continues to tinker with the roster, as he is apt to do. On Saturday, Dominik Simon made his season debut with Tom Kuhnhackl left as a healthy scratch. Simon proved capable with 2 assists, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Kuhnhackl right back in the lineup soon.
This week, the Penguins again get an easier slate of games (though no games are gimmes in the NHL). They play the Colorado Avalanche in Pittsburgh on Monday night before taking their first swing to the Southwest for this season. They play the surprising Golden Knights in the Penguins first ever game in Las Vegas, for which I will get to be in attendance. They finish the week in Arizona to play the Coyotes. Ideally, the Penguins can pick up six points, but more importantly, they can continue building their identity while getting key pieces back from injury.