Penguins fall to Hurricanes, lose ground in playoff race
When the Pittsburgh Penguins are at their best, they finish scoring chances with ruthless precision.
When that part of their game fails, they usually are in pretty big trouble.
That was the case Tuesday night as goalie Curtis McElhinney made 23 saves, and Jordan Martinook gave him all the offensive support he needed with a first-period goal, leading the Carolina Hurricanes to a 4-0 victory over the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena.
“It was a tight game, and you’ve got to capitalize when you get your chances in a game like that,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “We didn’t.”
Under different circumstances, the Penguins could have chalked it up as a game where the puck just wouldn’t cooperate.
In the first period, Juuso Riikola drove up the right wing and shoved a shot between McElhinney’s pads, but it trickled wide of the post. In the second period, Jake Guentzel hit a post with a power-play redirection. In the third, Crosby had a point-blank chance dribble wide.
Their spot in the standings, however, makes it difficult for the Penguins to simply shrug their shoulders and vow to get ’em next time.
They’re 5-7-0 since an eight-game winning streak came to an end Jan. 6. They are only four points ahead of the hard-charging Hurricanes, who have their sights set on the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
There’s a sense the impending return of Justin Schultz and Evgeni Malkin from injury will give the Penguins a boost, but given the inconsistency of their results of late, it had better be a pretty big boost.
“We’ve got to continue to push to try to raise the bar,” coach Mike Sullivan said.
One of the biggest problems holding the Penguins back as they’ve struggled to find their game in the past month has been the lack of a consistently clean breakout, which can lead to long shifts in the defensive zone.
That was an issue Tuesday, but only in spurts. Sullivan did not lay the blame at the feet of his defensemen for those instances, either, noting the five-man effort required in the transition game.
“If we didn’t execute. For example, on the outlet pass, we needed to come back,” Sullivan said. “Or if the play stalled or there was a puck bobble, that’s when we need to be available more than once. We’ve got to put the brakes on. We’ve got to come back to the puck. We’ve got to offer that second and third support.”
The Hurricanes lead the league in shots per game, but it was the bodies they got to the net that gave the Penguins trouble on this night.
Martinook’s goal came on a shot from the left wing through the legs of defender Tanner Pearson.
Brett Pesce scored in the second period on a shot from the blue line through traffic that goalie Matt Murray didn’t see until too late.
“I say it all the time. That’s how most goals are scored in the league nowadays,” Murray said. “As a goalie, it’s tough to make that first save when you can’t see the puck. Even if you make that first save, it’s hard to control the rebound.”
Not only is it a league-wide trend, it’s also something the Penguins might want to emulate, especially on nights when their finishing touch deserts them.
“I think maybe we’re looking to pass right now sometimes too much,” Guentzel said. “I think we’ve just got to start throwing pucks on the pads and getting in front of the net and create some rebounds. Definitely something we could learn from them. They’re shooting from everywhere.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at email@example.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .