Mark Madden: Penguins can’t get out of their own way |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Penguins can’t get out of their own way

Mark Madden
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Islanders’ Brock Nelson beats Penguins goaltender Matt Murray for the game-winner in overtime Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Islanders’ Anthony Beauvillier celebrates with Brock Nelson after beating Penguins goaltender Matt Murray for the game-winner in overtime Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Islanders’ Brock Nelson beats Penguins goaltender Matt Murray for the game-winner in overtime Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, at PPG Paints Arena.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have played terrific. Structurally and fundamentally, they’ve been at their best since the 2016 and ’17 Stanley Cup seasons.

Their defense and penalty-kill are top-notch. Their speed and energy are high. They are 11-7-3 and hold the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card spot despite a crippling slew of injuries.

But, at crucial moments, the Penguins can’t get out of their own way.

Witness Tuesday’s 5-4 overtime loss to the visiting New York Islanders. The Penguins were up 4-2 with less than seven minutes left. Then the roof caved in:

• Bryan Rust took an offensive-zone penalty at the 13:37 mark. It was a sketchy call. But dominoes started falling.

• At the end of that penalty, Zach Aston-Reese unnecessarily tried to make a play when dumping the puck would have sufficed. The resulting turnover sent the Islanders the other way, with Josh Bailey netting to make it 4-3.

• The Islanders pulled their goaltender, and the Penguins iced the puck three times in less than a minute. Icing precludes substitution by the offending team. Fresh Islanders scored on tired Penguins to tie the score with 1:32 left in regulation.

• Kris Letang is one of the NHL’s best three-on-three players. Without him, the Penguins are clueless in overtime. The Penguins lost draws, barely had possession, and were behind the 8-ball on changes. Justin Schultz’ giveaway allowed the Islanders’ Brock Nelson to complete the mercy killing. The Penguins didn’t get a shot in OT.

Losing seemed inevitable once Bailey scored. The Penguins’ deceleration was dramatic.

The Penguins have left many points on the table. They mostly play great. But when the Penguins stink, they don’t half stink. Ten bad minutes can undo 53 good ones. The Penguins dominated the Islanders, particularly in the first period.

Making one less mistake wins that game. But the Penguins kept going from bad to worse.

Now the Penguins face a rematch with the Islanders on Thursday at Brooklyn. Washington and the Islanders are showing signs of pulling away at the top of the Metropolitan Division. It’s not too early to worry about that.

Out of nowhere, the Penguins have become a defensive juggernaut. They sit fifth-best among NHL teams in goals against (2.62 per game) and shots against (29.5 per game). Before Tuesday’s loss, the Penguins hadn’t been outshot in nine games.

Their penalty-kill is sublime, ranking second in the NHL with a success rate of 89.8 percent. The Penguins haven’t allowed a power-play goal in 10 games. They have conceded five power-play goals on the year while scoring four times short-handed. After 21 games, the Penguins are a mere minus-1 when playing down a man.

It’s easier to kill penalties when you don’t take many. The Penguins have been short just 49 times, second-fewest in the NHL. Evgeni Malkin led the team in penalty minutes for each of the last three seasons but has committed just one minor in his 10 games.

The Penguins killed two first-period penalties Tuesday. The Islanders couldn’t even get zone entry. The Islanders were frustrated.

But it’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.

Overtime is a huge problem for the Penguins. Their OT record is 2-3 this year, 7-12 since the start of last season.

OT is about winning draws, puck possession, man-to-man defense and staying ahead of the opposition on changes. The Penguins are good at none of the above.

Their confidence evaporates when overtime begins. Even players with top-level skill (like Malkin) look like they’re beating a snake to death with a tree branch when they stickhandle. It’s a nightmare.

Teams don’t practice three-on-three often. Perhaps the Penguins need to start.

It’s a frustrating time for the Penguins. Begin with the injuries.

But GM Jim Rutherford wanted to make his team faster and more difficult to play against. He did. As per his mantra, Sullivan wants his team to “play the game the right way.” Mostly, they are. More than they did last season, certainly. (Trading Phil Kessel has helped in that regard.)

Yet, the Penguins aren’t reaping full benefit. If you don’t make the most (or close to it) out of playing well, what happens when you inevitably hit a bad stretch?

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