Kovacevic: Penguins too soft for comfort
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, 12:39 a.m.
Hockey isn't all that complicated. Even the greatest minds in the game's history, from Blake to Brooks to Bowman, have attested to that since the first dog-driven sleds crisscrossed the Canadian tundra to compete for Lord Stanley's Cup.
If three keys could have been inscribed then, they wouldn't have a syllable changed today:
Yeah, your Penguins are having a few issues with No. 3 there, to put it mildly. That 2-1 flatliner of a loss to the Flyers on Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center marked the third loss in a row and, not coincidentally, the third game in a row of scoring exactly once. It also marked the ninth time in the past 10 games they've scored three or fewer. And the second game in a row without an even-strength goal.
As Chris Kunitz bluntly put it afterward, “They're just not going in for us.”
No, but they sure are going everywhere else. The Penguins were credited — blamed? — with a ridiculous 19 missed shots and 12 blocked shots, and who knows how many out of Ray Emery's 30 saves came through little more than having a magnetic logo on his sweater.
That's not complicated, in and of itself. It's little more than an epic fail of No. 3 up there.
But here's where it does get a little complicated, maybe even concerning: What to do when the roster holds legitimate world-class talent, and nearly all of them are trying to do just about the same thing?
Seriously, watch this team.
You'll see, in the case of facing a usually loose Philadelphia defense, fairly easy access into the attacking zone. And then, invariably, the puck carrier will peel off to an edge.
Nothing wrong there, of course. But there sure is when the other two forwards hang on the perimeter right alongside the first guy. No one cuts through the slot to create traffic or even a modest distraction for the goaltender, never mind actually making it all the way there for some full-on mayhem.
It's cycle-o-rama, only without the hockey definition of the cycle that sends at least one body into the hard areas.
Wait, did I say hard?
Shouldn't use that word right now in association with this team. Because the cold truth is that the Penguins are a terribly easy team to play against right now.
I asked Dan Bylsma afterward his view on the latter: “We're certainly not doing enough around the net, in those areas to get goals that we think are there. There were opportunities with rebounds, but we're not able to get in there and finish.”
Not able or not willing?
If any of this sounds familiar, it should. This is what got the Penguins eliminated — no, humiliated —-- by the Bruins in scoring only twice in the Eastern Conference final. And yet, not much has changed since then.
Not anything, actually.
At the roster level, Ray Shero might well have sent the team backward in this regard. Understandably, because of cap constraints, he couldn't afford Matt Cooke or Tyler Kennedy and let them walk. But what arrived in their stead are a bunch of guys named Matt D'Agostini, who neither score nor hit nor create space for anyone else. There's barely anything coming from the third or fourth lines, unless you count part-time defenseman Deryk Engelland's two goals up front.
That's a problem. That must be addressed before the games mean a lot more than this one.
At the strategic level, Bylsma and staff have admirably solidified — simplified, really — the defensive system into a basic left-wing lock. The players have bought in, and the results have been highly encouraging. But if there's been any change in the offensive approach, it hasn't been visible yet.
That's a problem, too, maybe just as big as the roster.
But man, where this confounds is at the player level.
What are these guys doing right now spinning around and trying to pick corners and flicking 50-foot wrist shots from the boards?
Generally speaking, the hockey culture doesn't make many exceptions on who should go to the net. It's everyone or bust.
Right now, it's bust.
“We've got to find a way,” Crosby said. “We're generating chances.”
“The chances are there,” Kunitz said. “We need to go to the net, get a screen, get a rebound … make the other team feel a little uptight.”
Note all those extra steps he added that lead into the critical No. 3.
So why isn't anyone doing it?
In fairness, Crosby was at the lip of the crease for a power-play tap-in. That was the captain's first goal after a seven-game drought, and that might not be a coincidence. Graceful as he is in all facets and ferociously as he skated on this night to create two partial breaks and several chances, he still bangs in a lot of his goals down low. Or tips them.
For sure, no one's better equipped to set the tone.
And if that carries over to the other team's star, so much the better. Evgeni Malkin's goal drought is at 11 games, and no one is more guilty at this stage of living on the perimeter.
Case in point came on a rush that closed the second period: Malkin went bursting into the Philadelphia end with one of many bullish rushes — effort isn't the issue — but, even though less than 10 seconds remained, he whirled off to the right rather than shooting through two backtracking defensemen.
I'll repeat this: It's simple. The Penguins need to get a whole lot humbler, they need to take something off all those highlight-labeled corner shots, they need to work together for rebounds, and they need to behave as if they're interested in those rebounds.
All the other, prettier stuff will open up as a result.
James Neal, who rifled so many pucks off the glass it might need to be replaced before the next game Friday, was as blunt as anyone else: “You've got to hit the net; you've got to go to the net and bear down ... and shoot it in.”
Note all those extra steps.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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