Penguins searching for offense as season winds down
Given the names on the roster and the way most of this season has gone, it seems like a preposterous question to ask. Yet the answer might very well determine the fate of the team as the Stanley Cup chase begins in earnest.
Can the Pittsburgh Penguins score enough goals to contend for a championship?
The holes in a defense that allowed odd-man rushes galore for most of the season have been patched. The Penguins have given up 2.25 goals per game since the trade deadline.
The inconsistency that plagued goalie Matt Murray at times in the fall and winter has faded. He’s 9-3-3 with a .930 save percentage since the deadline.
The goals, however, have dried up. The Penguins have managed a grand total of 14 of them in their last seven games heading into a critical Metropolitan Division matchup with the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday at PPG Paints Arena.
Here’s a look at four reasons why the offense has stalled for the Penguins recently and whether the trends can be reversed down the stretch.
What happened?: The Penguins have largely given up on cheating for offense in the past month or so, staying on the right side of the puck and making good decisions far more often than not. This is a development that coach Mike Sullivan is thrilled about, but the high-flying days of December and January are over.
Can it be reversed?: To a man, the Penguins insist it’s just a matter of time. “I think that good defense always leads to offensive chances, and it comes down to just burying the puck,” captain Sidney Crosby said.
DIFFERENT PATHS TO THE NET
What happened?: The Penguins aren’t the only team in the league tightening up on defense. As opponents take greater care to prevent them from creating scoring chances off the rush, they have to manufacture offense in different ways. In many cases, that means doing blue-collar work in the offensive zone, looking for tips, screens and rebounds. They haven’t done that enough in recent games.
Can it be reversed?: Sullivan thinks so. “I think Sid’s line, in particular, might be one of the better lines in the league at creating offense from below the goal line,” he said. “We have the ability to create offense different ways. It’s just a matter of making sure we take what the game gives us out there.”
BIG GUNS MISFIRING
What happened?: Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist may have snapped the long goal droughts that frustrated them in the middle of the season, but they’re still not in peak form. Kessel has gone 28 games without an even-strength goal. Hornqvist hasn’t scored one in 32 games.
“Obviously when they’re scoring goals five-on-five, we’re a much better team,” Sullivan said.
Can it be reversed?: Both have shown some signs of life in recent days. Kessel actually leads the team in scoring over the last 10 games with two goals and eight assists. Hornqvist had a 10-game stretch with two goals and five assists in mid-March.
Sullivan doesn’t want them worrying about their point totals anyway.
“If all we do is focus on, ‘I gotta score, I gotta score, I gotta score,’ all of a sudden, we’re not playing the game the right way,” he said.
What happened?: Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang got hurt. They’re two of the most dynamic offensive players in the league.
Can it be reversed?: Malkin practiced with the team in a non-contact capacity Saturday. Letang skated on his own. The team remains optimistic that they will return for the start of the playoffs.
“Obviously with different guys out, especially Geno, he adds a lot. Tanger, the same thing,” Crosby said. “I think if we focus on playing well defensively, we have enough depth that the puck will go in.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .