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Tim Benz: No more 'it's just November' nonsense for Penguins

| Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017, 8:03 p.m.
The Blackhawks' Brent Seabrook tries to defend on the Penguins Sidney Crosby in the third period Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Blackhawks' Brent Seabrook tries to defend on the Penguins Sidney Crosby in the third period Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.

There is an interesting dynamic when it comes to following a good NHL team in what is also a good NFL city.

The Penguins are coming off two straight Stanley Cups. The Steelers are in contention for AFC supremacy.

As a result, a lot of fans and media members are choosing to avoid much criticism of the hockey team's erratic play this early in the season — with football aplenty to watch — by consistently falling back on one common refrain:

“It's just November hockey. The only thing that matters is the playoffs.”

Sure. But many of those same fans and media members then lash out at those who “just jump on the bandwagon” after football season ends.

So does “November hockey” matter or not?

I'd like to think it does.

Although I'm not going to act like I can force people to pay attention to something they don't really care about.

If I had that power, this column may have been about Pitt football or basketball instead.

So let's just pretend for a minute we live in a hockey city that doesn't have an NFL team. Like Toronto, Edmonton or, you know, ... New York.

Let's also pretend we have been tracking every Penguins game as heartily as we would do if it were late February or March. What would we think?

Not too good, right?

The Penguins have as many wins as they do losses through 22 games. They are 11-8-3 at the quarter mark of this 2017-18 season. That's good for third in the underperforming Metro Division thus far. That would at least get them into the playoffs.

Which — all together now — “is the only thing that matters!”

But how the Penguins have played en route to that barely mediocre level is concerning. They have looked awful in more games than they have looked good. Their 16 goal differential is by far the worst of any team currently in a playoff spot.

It's not just me saying that. So is the coach.

“It's about how we win and how we lose,” Mike Sullivan said. “It's giving yourself the best chance to win on a given night.

“We are what our record says we are right now. And that's because we haven't brought a consistent effort.”

What that record is saying about the Penguins right now is they are the definition of average. Yes, the two-time defending champs have been nothing but so-so.

The players are admitting it, too.

Goalie Matt Murray was critical of the team taking too many penalties this season after Saturday's loss against the Blackhawks. They have totaled the second-most penalty minutes in the NHL.

When the Penguins are on the penalty kill, forward Carl Hagelin has called it “embarrassing.” That's accurate. The club has allowed 20 power-play goals this year. Only Washington has allowed more.

After that 2-1 loss to Chicago, center Sidney Crosby said the following of his team's inconsistent first quarter: “We've got to be better. I have to be better. That's the bottom line.

“We've got to get better as the season goes along. Sometimes it takes longer than you like. At the end of the day, you want to continue to improve. We have to do a better job of that to give ourselves a chance.”

A walking tour of the Penguin locker room Tuesday resulted in quotes echoing Crosby's from at least half a dozen other players.

So if everyone is admitting that consistency of effort and attention to detail are issues, why haven't those problems faded during games as November has sputtered along?

“That's a good question,” defenseman Olli Maatta said. “We've got to have an answer to that. We've got to find a consistent level.”

By the way, a quick check of the calendar show us the “it's just November hockey” explanation is going to have to morph into “just December hockey” soon.

Once again, the Penguins are at least verbalizing the dangers of pushing their problems down the road. Now they actually have to do something about it.

“There's no ‘just turning on the switch after Christmas' anymore,” Hagelin said. “It doesn't go that way in this league nowadays. The league is too competitive.”

The Penguins are too good to be this average for much longer. They will get better. And if they don't, general manager Jim Rutherford has shown an ability to fix problems during the season.

So this isn't a call to panic. It's just a reminder November hockey is almost over. Only three-quarters of the season remains.

And so far the Penguins are looking like half the team they should be.

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.

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