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Penguins

Penguins once again need to tighten up with lead

Jonathan Bombulie
| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, 7:51 p.m.
Penguins goaltender Matt Murray covers the puck before the Jets’ Mark Scheifele can get his stick on it during the first period Friday, Jan. 4, 2019.
Penguins goaltender Matt Murray covers the puck before the Jets’ Mark Scheifele can get his stick on it during the first period Friday, Jan. 4, 2019.
Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith makes a save on the Black Hawks’ Jonathan Toews in the second period Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith makes a save on the Black Hawks’ Jonathan Toews in the second period Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019 at PPG Paints Arena.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins open a five-game western road trip Friday night in Anaheim, they will be looking to bounce back from a 5-1 victory over the Florida Panthers.

It’s a lot like last week, when the Penguins rebounded from a 7-2 win over the New York Rangers to defeat the Winnipeg Jets.

This, of course, sounds like crazy talk. What team needs to bounce back from a blowout victory?

It makes perfect sense to the Penguins, though.

In their last three wins, the Penguins have jumped out to an early lead, then opened up the defensive floodgates and relied on goalie Matt Murray to save them from imploding.

The Penguins aren’t apologizing for winning, but they know their recent form probably isn’t good enough to get them to where they want to go.

“As long as we look at it like that and make sure we tighten up, then we’ll get by it and learn from it,” captain Sidney Crosby said after the victory over the Panthers.

The Penguins have taken a 2-0 lead before the 15-minute mark of the first period in each of their last three games.

• Last Friday against Winnipeg, Olli Maatta and Matt Cullen scored 33 seconds apart late in the first period. Murray made 33 saves, and the Penguins won 4-0.

• Last Sunday against the Chicago Blackhawks, Patric Hornqvist and Jake Guentzel scored in the first five minutes. Casey DeSmith stopped 26 of 30 shots, and the Penguins lost 5-3.

• Tuesday night against Florida, Tanner Pearson and Bryan Rust scored in the first four minutes. Murray made 36 saves, and the Penguins won 5-1.

It’s not hard to spot the difference between the leads that were protected and the one that wasn’t.

When the Blackhawks pushed back, DeSmith couldn’t stop the barrage of scoring chances he faced. Murray, who is 8-0 with a .963 save percentage since returning from an injury last month, cleaned up nearly every mess his teammates made.

“It seems like when we get goals early in a game, we don’t tend to play the game as tight as we need to,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “That’s a conversation we’ll have with our team.”

Every NHL team gives up more scoring chances when it’s leading than when it’s trailing. That’s simply the nature of the way the score affects the game. For the Penguins, though, the increase is more drastic than most.

When they’re trailing, they give up 27.3 shots per 60 minutes, which is 17th-most in the league. When they’re tied, they give up 32.0 shots per 60, which is 13th-most. When they’re ahead, they give up 36.5 shots per 60, which is eighth-most.

When the Penguins ran into similar problems in the middle of last month, blowing two-goal leads in consecutive home games against Boston, Los Angeles and Anaheim, they responded by making their game a little more boring.

They added a few offensive-zone cycles and conservative decisions with the puck at the attacking blue line, and it paid dividends.

They’ll have to make similar adjustments if they hope to come home from their western road trip with a suitcase full of points in the standings.

“We know our guys are so capable of playing the game hard and playing the game the right way and being harder to play against and limiting the quantity and quality of the chances against,” Sullivan said. “You have to defend in this league. You have to check. It’s hard to win consistently if you don’t.

“I give our players high marks for scoring some goals and finishing on some of the opportunities that we had in the offensive zone, but I know we’re capable of a better game.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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