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Penguins

Penguins looking to solve early-season struggles in back-to-back games

Jonathan Bombulie
| Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, 8:06 p.m.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang checks the Predators' Colton Sissons in the second period Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang checks the Predators' Colton Sissons in the second period Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Antti Niemi (31), of Finland, stops a shot by Tampa Bay Lightning center Yanni Gourde (37) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Penguins is Conor Sheary (43) defends. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Antti Niemi (31), of Finland, stops a shot by Tampa Bay Lightning center Yanni Gourde (37) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Penguins is Conor Sheary (43) defends. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Pittsburgh Penguins players look up a big screen after Chicago Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad scored his third goal of the night, pduring the third period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Chicago. The Blackhawks won 10-1. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Pittsburgh Penguins players look up a big screen after Chicago Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad scored his third goal of the night, pduring the third period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Chicago. The Blackhawks won 10-1. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

When they visit the Florida Panthers on Friday and the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, the Penguins will get another chance to show they can handle playing on back-to-back nights with travel in between.

Their first two attempts to deal with that tricky situation this season couldn't have gone much worse.

During the first week of the season, after losing 5-4 to St. Louis in the home opener on a Wednesday, they were obliterated 10-1 on Thursday in Chicago.

A week later, they turned in a strong performance in a 3-2 win in Washington on Wednesday, then played fast and loose with the puck in a 5-4 loss at Tampa Bay the next night.

The raw numbers are stunning.

On the tail end of back-to-back games, the Penguins are giving up an average of 7.5 goals and 39 shots and have a 40.1 shot-attempt percentage. In all other games, they are giving up an average of 2.8 goals and 32 shots and have a 50.3 shot-attempt percentage.

“If we're going to be a good team, we gotta start playing a lot better in those back-to-backs,” goalie Matt Murray said.

After this weekend, the Penguins will play 16 more sets of back-to-back games this season, and 13 of them will include travel between games.

It's a problem that isn't going away and will require some solutions.

Kris Letang has an idea. The way he sees it, playing an opponent to a 0-0 draw in the first period of a game on the tail end of a back-to-back might be what the doctor ordered.

“I think the key on a back-to-back is play a simple game,” Letang said. “Try to be patient. Don't try to win a game in the first 20 minutes. We've been facing great teams like Tampa Bay and Chicago. They're teams that are going to come out of the gate pretty hard. If you play well defensively and you're in good position, you might end up on the good side of it.”

Another solution might have to do with goaltending.

The first two times the Penguins played the tail end of a back-to-back this season, Antti Niemi was in goal. He gave up nine goals with an .809 save percentage.

Playing in disadvantageous situations is a fact of life for backup goalies in the NHL, so it's not necessary to shed tears for Niemi, but playing him under less taxing circumstances might be one way to help get him on a roll.

“We'd ideally like to put Antti in a situation where he has an opportunity to have a fresh hockey team in front of him,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “His two starts to this point have been really difficult games logistically.

“But he's aware of that. It's part of his job. He understands it. Once again, you control what you can. You go out there and do your best. Sometimes you gotta play the hand you're dealt and the schedule we don't have a lot of control over.”

The way Sullivan sees it, the key to having success in back-to-back situations is discipline, and that means more than just not taking penalties.

“It comes down to a discipline in all of its forms,” Sullivan said. “It's a discipline to understand what our identity is and to play to it. It's a discipline to make sure we don't beat ourselves with poor decisions with the puck or unnecessary slashing penalties or things of that nature.

“You can beat yourself in this league in so many ways. I think when you look at the best teams in the league over time, regardless of any sport, they're teams that don't beat themselves.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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