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Penguins working to fix struggles scoring in 5-on-5 situations

Jonathan Bombulie
| Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, 6:03 p.m.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby handles the puck past the Jets' Dmitry Kulikov in the first period Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby handles the puck past the Jets' Dmitry Kulikov in the first period Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins’ Phil Kessel (81) gives an assist to Sidney Crosby during their game against the Panthers at PPG Arena on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The Penguins’ Phil Kessel (81) gives an assist to Sidney Crosby during their game against the Panthers at PPG Arena on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017.

After 154 regular-season games, eight playoff rounds and two Stanley Cup championship celebrations, it would be reasonable to think Mike Sullivan has, by now, seen every situation that could be thrown at him as coach of the Penguins.

Yet as the Penguins practiced Monday coming off a 1-3-1 western road trip, Sullivan found himself in uncharted waters.

He's presiding over a team that is struggling terribly to produce even-strength goals.

That seems almost impossible for a team that employs Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang, but the numbers don't lie.

The Penguins have scored 19 five-on-five goals in 16 games this season. Boston is the only NHL team to score fewer (18), and the Bruins have played four fewer games.

On their recently completed five-game trip, the Penguins scored just three even-strength goals.

“We've really grown accustomed to this team scoring goals because we have a lot of elite players. They're talented guys,” Sullivan said. “This is really, in my tenure here, this has been our first challenge in that regard. But it's nothing we're not capable of overcoming.”

One thing Sullivan has done to try to kick-start his team's even-strength offense is to switch line combinations on a regular basis.

Monday's practice was no different. Crosby was skating with Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist. Malkin centered Kessel and Jake Guentzel on a loaded-up second line. Tom Kuhnhackl, fresh off a rare stint in the top six, was back on the fourth line with Greg McKegg and Ryan Reaves.

Beyond that, Sullivan mostly has tried to focus on the process. He said he has identified areas of the team's X's and O's where, though video and practice reps, players can begin to put themselves in better positions to score.

It has shown some results. In the last three games of the road trip, the Penguins averaged 37 shots and one even-strength goal per game. It's not a bonanza, but it's something.

“From watching video, when we played in Winnipeg, it didn't look like we had much urgency. We weren't quick on pucks,” Sheary said. “Once we got to Edmonton and Calgary and Vancouver, we were playing good hockey.”

It seems incredibly unlikely the process won't yield results eventually. The scenarios that would keep the Penguins in their even-strength slump for, say, the rest of the season seem very far-fetched.

The team's star players would have needed to reach an age, all at the same time, at which they no longer can produce even-strength offense. That's not likely.

“You see the guys we have in this room,” Guentzel said. “It's tough right now, but you just gotta stay with it.”

The team's opponents would have needed to devise a defensive game plan that can, all of a sudden, neutralize the speed that won the Penguins two championships. Again, not likely.

Sheary said the Penguins aren't facing different defensive schemes this season, just stiffer defensive efforts.

“The one thing we've kind of earned is we're going to get every team's best,” Sheary said. “It's a good thing for us, because we know we always have to be ready, but it can bite us if we see a team that's maybe not doing so well and we don't show up.”

Finally, the numbers would have to fail to even out over the long haul like they usually do.

At even strength, the Penguins are last in the league in shooting percentage (4.46) and opponents' shooting percentage (11.17). Neither number is close to sustainable.

“It's definitely something that is foreign to us guys that haven't been around more than a couple years,” winger Bryan Rust said. “We have the guys in this locker room where if we keep working at it, we'll pop out of it.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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