Loss to Sharks shows how far Penguins have left to climb
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been playing some pretty good hockey since turning their season around at the beginning of December.
They’re 14-5-1 in their past 20 games. They deserve no worse than a solid B-plus on their report card.
Late Tuesday night, they got an up-close look at what an A-plus looks like.
Tomas Hertl had a hat trick and Evander Kane had three assists, leading the powerful San Jose Sharks to a convincing 5-2 victory that ran their winning streak to seven games.
During their last 20 games, the Penguins have done a good job in the transition game. On Tuesday night, the Sharks did a great job in that area, piling up a 53-36 advantage in even-strength shot attempts.
During their last 20 games, the Penguins have done a good job of putting together a balanced attack on offense. On Tuesday night, the Sharks did a great job peppering the Penguins with balance. Hertl and Kane are two-thirds of San Jose’s third line.
During their last 20 games, a Penguins defense corps that is longer on finesse than power has done a good job winning battles in front of the net. On Tuesday night, the Sharks did a great job in the battle areas. Marcus Sorensen scored on a tip, and Hertl’s second goal came on a rebound.
The Penguins haven’t put together a 20-game turnaround solely by beating up on inferior teams. Two of the highlights of their run were a gritty 2-1 road win at Washington and a thorough 4-0 beating of Winnipeg. Those are a pair of legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
But neither the Capitals nor the Jets on those nights were clicking like the Sharks were Tuesday, and the Penguins had no answers.
Here are three other things we learned from the game.
1. Brassard’s workload
A failed third-period comeback by the Penguins might have shined a light on exactly why Derick Brassard hasn’t been a good fit on the team’s third line.
With the Sharks holding a 4-1 lead and the usual sources of offense failing to provide a spark, coach Mike Sullivan leaned on his bottom six in the third period.
Brassard played more than six minutes and made the most of the increased workload. He hit the crossbar on a late power play and scored on a shot from the right dot to pull the Penguins within two in a six-on-five situation late.
Throughout much of his career, Brassard has averaged between 17 and 18 minutes of ice time as a top-six center. With the Penguins, he’s averaged about 15 minutes on the third line. He looks like the type of player who needs a higher volume of work to be successful.
2. One step back
Part of the Penguins’ turnaround throughout December and the early part of January was a slow and steady improvement in Evgeni Malkin’s game.
He never returned to peak, game-breaking form, but in an 11-game stretch from Dec. 19 to Jan. 11, he had 13 points and a plus-4 rating. That’s not bad.
The last two games, however, have been a step back. Hertl’s first goal came on a play where Malkin tried to check the Sharks center but instead ended up on his wallet. Malkin is a minus-5 in his last two games.
3. Standings slide
The Eastern Conference standings are so bunched up that even a two-game losing streak, the first the Penguins have suffered since Dec. 1, can do damage.
The Penguins have slipped out of the top three spots in the Metropolitan Division and into the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference, just four points ahead of ninth-place Buffalo.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .