The Pittsburgh Penguins are rob-dobbing their way to a late-season collapse the likes of which haven’t been seen in this city since 2012.
Everything and everyone can be blamed for a skid that has seen the team fall from battling-for-first to nearly out of it in the Metropolitan Division, not the least of which are injuries, bad luck and bad players.
A date with Ottawa, a team Pittsburgh led in the standings by some 20 points the last time they met, is looming. Lose in regulation Tuesday, and the Senators will have caught the Penguins with only two games remaining.
A regulation win on Tuesday will clinch the playoff spot. But that the Penguins have fallen so far, so fast is astonishing. Especially since this team fancied itself a contender as recently as the trade deadline.
“We Like Our Chances”
Shortly after the early March trade deadline in which the Penguins moved Zach Sill, Robert Bortuzzo, Simon Despres and a few draft picks for Daniel Winnik, Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy, Penguins’ GM Jim Rutherford was bullish on his team’s chances. From NHL.com:
The Penguins have as good a chance as any in the Eastern Conference… And as the year’s gone along, we got stronger and stronger with the additions that we’ve made and all the adversity that we’ve had to deal with… We have every bit of a chance as they do.
The Penguins, since the deadline, are on a 6-9-2 run with losing streaks of four games and three (and counting) in the mix. The team hasn’t scored more than three goals in a game in the last three weeks. They haven’t beaten a playoff-seeded opponent in a month. They haven’t beaten a conference or divisional opponent in over a month’s time.
That run has them on the brink of a playoff miss for just the second time since Sidney Crosby entered the league.
The Penguins began this season on a 13-3-1 run. They had the top offense in the league. The power play was scoring at an historic pace. Even the team defense was top-five in the league in goal prevention.
- 18th in goals per game.
- 10th in goals against.
- 8th-ranked power play.
The trades, on the whole, haven’t been all bad. Cole is an upgrade over Bortuzzo. Winnik, while expensive and only modestly productive (two goals, 8 points in 18 games), is still a better bottom-six option than anything the Penguins carried last season. Lovejoy, well…
Despite the deals or any notions of how they’ve gone, most alarming is the Penguins’ free-fall through the standings. The day of the trade deadline, Pittsburgh was 3rd in the Metropolitan Division, within shouting distance of the New York teams ahead of them and held a double-digit points cushion on the Ottawa Senators.
Since then, the Senators have drawn to within a pair. A win Tuesday will put the teams even with two games remaining apiece.
The downfall has been swift and severe, so what’s to blame?
First and foremost, the team that Rutherford thought he had at the deadline is not the one he has now.
Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff, half of the team’s top-four defense group are out. Probably for the rest of the season, however long that may be. Neither has practiced since suffering their latest instances of concussion symptoms. Couple that with Olli Maatta who has long since been ruled out for the year and the defense group can be forgiven for suffering of late.
Olli Maatta has had some season: Tumor, mumps, season ending shoulder surgery. Someone owes that guy some good luck next year.
— Tom Gulitti (@TGfireandice) January 14, 2015
Especially since management left them to play a man down several times this year.
Due to cap restrictions and a lack of LTIR availability so close to the postseason, the Penguins played a handful of games with only five defensemen in the lineup in late March and early April. That made Lovejoy, Cole, Rob Scuderi and Derrick Pouliot — four defensemen who were set to take turns as healthy scratches in a full playoff lineup — 20-plus minute players.
Add in the simple fact that each is playing greater minutes and tougher assignments than the team intended when they acquired them, and Pittsburgh’s cratering defense (13 GA in last three games, 2.8 per game since March 1) is a clear weakness. Couple that with a spate of missed games from Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist and the team’s fifth-ranked man-games lost number, and you can see where problems arise.
It’s bad enough that Crosby is on pace to finish with 84 points in a near-completely healthy season. It’s bad enough that he and Malkin are on pace to finish with career-low points per game paces in the same season. However, Crosby is still the league’s leading scorer and Malkin is still the top points/60 player in the NHL. It’s evident that scoring is down across the board.
That said, Pittsburgh’s depth scoring has been nonexistent.
Take, for instance, the goals total of some of the team’s bottom-six forwards this year. Beau Bennett has produced just three goals this year. Nick Spaling has nine. Craig Adams, one in 68 games. Maxim Lapierre, none in 32 games since joining the Penguins. No one in the group outside of Brandon Sutter has more than 15 this year.
Problems abound in the top-six, too. Blake Comeau has just five goals since February 1 and one in his last 15 games. Chris Kunitz, on pace to finish with fewer than 20 goals for the first time since joining Pittsburgh, has one goal since March 1. David Perron is on nine-straight games with no goals and only one assist to his credit.
The Penguins, since the trade deadline, are averaging just two goals per game. Only Arizona is worse in that span (and two of Pittsburgh’s six wins since the deadline have come against the Coyotes).
There’s plenty of blame to go around in Pittsburgh. That blame begins and mostly ends with injuries. The team has found itself once again unable to score in support of its put-upon star centers. Some plain old bad luck has followed them as well.
If there’s reason for hope, it’s that the team is still driving offense. They’ve outshot their opponents in eight of the last ten (averaging 34.6 shots per game) but have just three wins in that span, while opposing goalies are running a .948 save percentage against them in those contests. In three of their last seven losses, Pittsburgh has still taken 35 or more shots on the opposing netminder.
Over a long enough period, that kind of puck control will lead to positive outcomes. Pittsburgh’s problem now is one of time, where three games remain between them and the playoffs.
One win over Ottawa and the bad vibes can be put on pause (a regulation win Tuesday seals their bid). Lately, the Penguins have been putting in the work. They can’t control the bounces, but they still control their playoff destiny.
That’s something, anyway.
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