Tim Benz: Penguins defense not good enough for scoring lull
If the current Pittsburgh Penguins are going to live up to recent praise from Mike Sullivan and Jim Rutherford, then they need to start scoring.
Over the past few days, both the head coach and the general manager have expressed confidence in their team, stating they both like the composition of this club, once the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Justin Schultz, and Zach Aston-Reese return from injury.
But for a team that was largely criticized early in the year for thinking too much about offense too frequently, the well has gone dry when it comes to goals of late.
And they are still giving up too many.
Overall, the Penguins are 15th out of 31 teams when it comes to goals against per game, at the rate of 3.06. That number has been offset, though, by a 3.43 goals per game average, sixth-best in the league.
Over the past nine games, the Penguins have gone 3-6. Discounting empty netters, the Pens have given up 33 goals in that stretch, for an average of 3.66 goals against per game.
That would pace out to be the second-worst total in the NHL over the length of the season, behind only Ottawa at 3.73.
A compounding issue has been that the offense hasn’t mitigated the defensive problems, averaging just 2.66 goals per game (no empty netters were scored in the three wins). That would be rated no better than 28th in the NHL.
The point being, the Penguins are not sound enough defensively, or in goal, this year to support a group-wide goal-scoring lull, which is what the team is enduring now with Malkin and Schultz absent.
Let’s focus on the forwards for the time being, since Rutherford has already traded away one defenseman — Jamie Oleksiak — and most of the discussion seems to be centering around the prospect of the Penguins picking up another wing.
Looking at this recent dry spell over those nine games, Jake Guentzel is the only forward who can boast more than three goals; he has five. Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, and Bryan Rust have three each.
Aside from that, consider some of these droughts over those nine games:
• Matt Cullen has one goal and two assists.
• Tanner Pearson has no goals and one assist.
• Dominik Simon has one goal and one assist.
• Malkin was held without a goal for six games before he got hurt against Tampa on January 30.
• Patric Hornqvist hasn’t scored in the six games since he returned from injury. In fact, he doesn’t have a point.
• The power play is four for its last 25 attempts, just 16 percent. That would be good for only 26th in hockey.
Pearson is particularly vexing because the Penguins traded away all the speed, hustle, forechecking, penalty killing, and locker room attributes of Carl Hagelin to get him.
Hagelin had offensive deficiencies. But now the team still has an absence of point production from that left wing spot, yet none of those other positive traits.
In part because of those struggles, Pearson was skating on a fourth line with Teddy Blueger and Garrett Wilson on Wednesday in practice.
Actually, a lot of the line combinations were moved around, as were the defensive pairings.
“We have had stable defense pairs and fairly stable line combinations for a significant amount of games. We’re 4-6 in our last 10,” Sullivan said after practice, extending the sample size referenced in this column by a game. “There’s a fine line between riding through with defense pairs and line combinations or trying to effect a little bit of change. And a little bit of urgency.”
Yet, after Tuesday’s 4-0 loss to Carolina, Sullivan sounded like a coach who isn’t concerned about a lack of chess pieces. Before that loss to Carolina, he said this roster is superior to the one that opened this season in the fall.
“I think we are a better team today with some of the changes that Jim has made to our team,” Sullivan said after the Carolina defeat Tuesday. “I think he has improved our team. I think we are a better team.”
If that’s the case, the Penguins need to start playing like it’s true. Maybe tonight against the Panthers and their 29th ranked defense.
If it isn’t true, and the Penguins brass is conning itself — and us — and Rutherford has less than three weeks to realize that.
And do something about it.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at email@example.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.