Kevin Gorman: Sleepwalking Penguins need to hear Evgeni Malkin’s wakeup call
The exclamations of exasperation from Evgeni Malkin tend to come when the Pittsburgh Penguins need to hear it the most — during a midseason slump or on the brink of postseason elimination.
That Malkin was miffed after the season opener should have the Penguins worried. Actually, the way they played in the season opener should have the Penguins worried.
Their 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena was deserving of the harsh words they heard afterward from their 33-year-old center, who was disgusted by their lackluster effort and sloppy play with the puck.
“The exhibition games are done. It’s real games right now,” Malkin said. “We need to understand that every team is dangerous right now. It doesn’t matter if it’s Buffalo or Washington. We need to learn (from) how we played and we have to play better, for sure — like, 100% better.”
Like, 1,000% better.
The Penguins played like they picked up where they left off last season, when they were caught sleepwalking by the New York Islanders in a first-round sweep in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It was one game, and Malkin was ready to sound the alarms.
The Sabres didn’t just outplay the Penguins. They played faster, harder and, like the Islanders, pounced on every mistake. And the Penguins made plenty of them, from the blind backhand pass Jake Guentzel made for a turnover on a power play to the one Kris Letang sent through the slot that led to a penalty and the Sabres scoring the winning goal on a power play.
“The season’s started already,” Malkin said. “We need to understand that it’s not like we have 20 games to wake up. No, it’s already started. Every point is important. Every year, it gets harder and harder to make the playoffs.”
The Penguins don’t resemble a playoff team; at least, not one capable of advancing. They looked like a facsimile of last season. This time, Phil Kessel isn’t around to be blamed.
Consider the numbers alone: The Penguins were charged, by the home scorekeepers no less, with 17 giveaways. That’s an astounding number, especially compared to the Sabres’ six.
The Penguins were outshot 41-29 putting pressure on goaltender Matt Murray to make one spectacular save after another. Murray stopped 38 shots, including two breakaways, only one a short-hander.
“He’s playing amazing,” Malkin said of Murray, “but we’re not playing good enough.”
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan called Murray “our best player,” adding that “we’ve got to be better in front of him.”
Speaking of the power play, the Penguins were 1-for-5 with the advantage. That goal came in the second period, when Malkin took advantage of Kessel’s favorite spot by slipping a wrister past Carter Hutton from the left circle to tie the score 1-1.
Yet Malkin was particularly critical of the power play, calling it “bad” and saying it’s “not working.” Mostly, Malkin raised the same question we have had about the Penguins since last season and through all of the offseason: Why does such a talented team make the same mistakes over and over and over again?
“We (were) not good enough,” Malkin said. “They were hungry. They played much faster. I think we only played for 30 minutes. It’s the young guys, a young league right now. We had a couple letdowns, and they changed the game. …
“We need to play faster. We need to play hungry, every puck. It’s not good for us how we played. We need change.”
What the sleepwalking Penguins need is to wake up.
They need to listen to Malkin’s words and realize that every team is dangerous right now — except perhaps for the Penguins, unless we are talking about self-inflicted damage.
Only then are they among the best.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .