Penguins goaltender Antti Niemi struggles again in lopsided loss to Lightning
TAMPA, Fla. – Before Saturday night's game, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said the hardest part of coaching a defending Stanley Cup champion is “getting the guys reinvested to play the game the right way” in October after the heights they reached in June.
Seeing that they're giving up more than four goals per game nine games into the season, it's an objective the Penguins clearly have failed to reach so far.
Nikita Kucherov had two goals, and Steven Stamkos added four points as the Tampa Bay Lightning routed the Penguins, 7-1.
The loss snapped a three-game winning streak for the Penguins and dropped them to 5-3-1 for the season.
“I think right now we're a flawed hockey team,” Sullivan said. “We've got to shore up a lot of areas. I don't think it has anything to do with back-to-backs. I think it has to do with a mindset and willingness to play the game the right way.”
Although it specifically was not one of the flaws Sullivan was referring to, backup goaltending isn't helping matters any for the Penguins. After stopping 25 of 32 shots Saturday, Antti Niemi is 0-3 with a 7.49 goals-against average and .797 save percentage this season. Those numbers are objectively abysmal.
Still, Niemi's performances have been fraught with extenuating circumstances.
Most notably, all three of his starts have come on the tail end of sets of back-to-back games on the road against powerful opponents: Chicago in the first week of the season and Tampa Bay twice since.
The Penguins have been outscored 22-6 in the three back-to-back finales. They've outscored opponents 24-17 in their other six games.
“The teams that we played aren't going to let up,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “They're going to keep coming. It's something we've got to correct.”
A penalty on Crosby in the first minute of Saturday's game wasn't ideal for the Penguins, either.
Crosby was whistled for cross-checking while exchanging words and shoves with Yanni Gourde as they made their way back to the bench at the end of the opening shift of the first period.
Crosby was livid at the call, saying it was a situation that happens dozens of times a game. He picked up a 10-minute misconduct for arguing with referee Garrett Rank about it.
Still, when Kucherov snapped a shot past Niemi on the power play that followed, the Penguins set an ominous tone for the rest of the game.
“That's not the way you want to start, and that's on me,” Crosby said. “Obviously it's tough to have that happen.”
Niemi thought things went south when Gourde scored a buzzer-beater on a rebound with 0.2 seconds left in the first period to give the Lightning a 3-0 lead. He also gave up three goals in the second period on shots that normally would be considered reasonably stoppable.
Regardless, he said he doesn't feel like his game is too far off kilter.
“I still felt OK there,” Niemi said. “I think I made a few good saves. Obviously it wasn't even close to enough, but I think I'm really close.”
Sullivan declined to heap blame on Niemi.
“It doesn't fall on any one guy,” Sullivan said. “We just simply didn't play hard enough or well enough in front of him. We win as a team and lose as a team.”
A few hours after the Penguins acquired center Riley Sheahan from the Detroit Red Wings, they lost another player at the position due to injury. Carter Rowney suffered a hand injury while blocking a shot on the penalty kill in the first period and did not return.
Sullivan said Rowney will be evaluated when the team returns to Pittsburgh.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.