Tim Benz: Penguins’ inconsistent start leading to low-tension games
This year’s Pittsburgh Penguins team certainly doesn’t seem to be one that’s high on tension.
It’ll let you beat the traffic out of the arena.
In the club’s first game, it put forth a listless effort in a flat 3-1 season-opening loss to the Buffalo Sabres.
In Game 2 Saturday, the Penguins boat raced the Columbus Blue Jackets 7-2.
Then, in Game 3 Tuesday night, Sidney Crosby scored 32 seconds into the game, only to see the team shutout for the final 59:28, en route to a 4-1 loss at home to the Winnipeg Jets.
Each game has been unique, but one consistency so far during the first week of NHL hockey in Pittsburgh is that there hasn’t been a lot of nail biting in the third period.
Just don’t look for a connecting thread as to why.
“I think up until this point, the three games have been very different in nature,” head coach Mike Sullivan said after the loss Tuesday. “The one we were the most disappointed in was Game 1. We really liked Game 2. I thought we competed hard tonight. I don’t think the score was any indication of how the game was played.”
Unfortunately for the Penguins, one pattern between the last two games has been a shortage of forwards. Nick Bjugstad and Evgeni Malkin got hurt during Saturday night’s win. The team only dressed 11 forwards Tuesday. Then Patric Hornqvist was injured early in the game, dropping the number of healthy bodies up front to 10 before the final horn for the second consecutive game.
“The forwards battled tonight,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “That’s not easy playing 10 forwards. A lot of them played different roles and lines. But that’s part of the effort. I thought they worked hard. They gave us some good chances.”
In this game, the Penguins outshot the Jets 24-20, didn’t commit any penalties, and won 58% of their faceoffs.
“Tonight was a different story from Game 1,” captain Crosby said. “We made a couple mistakes that wound up in the back of our net. But besides that, we played a pretty good game.”
The one area where the Jets were discernibly better was puck management. That’s one replication of the loss on Thursday to the Sabres. The Penguins gave the puck away 10 times, as opposed to just four transgressions for Winnipeg. Two of those turnovers proved particularly costly as they resulted in response goals by the Jets after Crosby scored quickly to start the game.
On the first Jets goal of the contest, the Penguins couldn’t push the puck out of the defensive zone up the left wall, allowing a score by Ville Heinola.
On the second goal, Pittsburgh forward Zach Aston-Reese could’ve been credited with a primary assist for serving up a perfect pass to opposing winger Nickolaj Ehlers at the Penguins’ defensive blue line. Ehlers ended up ripping a shot past goaltender Matt Murray to give the Jets a 2-1 lead.
“We turned it over in some tough areas,” Crosby said. “At the start of the year you need to make those mistakes sometimes before you realize the impact.”
Well, the impact so far is leaving four of a possible six points on the table at home to start the year. In a season where every point could be crucial for the Penguins, that’s not good.
“We flipped a switch. We took it to Columbus,” Aston-Reese said. “Tonight I thought we still played well. Look at the chances-for and the stat line. We outplayed them for the most part. We just gave them too many good chances. They capitalized on them. If that goes the other way, it is 4-1 for us.”
But it didn’t. And the Penguins were playing from behind for 50 minutes of the hockey game, with the lead expanding as the night went along, including a Mark Scheifele goal that was pulled off the board following an offsides.
Otherwise, it could’ve been a 5-1 final.
So I’d be wary of the Penguins adopting last year’s Steelers mentality of #JustAFewPlaysAway after losses. The local football team fell into that trap of thinking they were closer than they were in many games during 2018. Then they looked up and realized they had six loses and a tie and were at home for the postseason.
Not that I’m complaining. I don’t need 82 nights of white-knuckle hockey tension, 60 minutes at a time. The playoffs are good enough for me in that regard.
I just hope the Penguins actually get there again this year.