As a Pittsburgh Penguins’ fan, you are undoubtedly beside yourself with frustration after watching your hockey team lose to the last place Tampa Bay Lightning (8-16-9). If that weren’t depressing enough, they were outshot 29-15 and shut-out 2-0 by a team that normally gives up 33.5 shots and 2.88 goals per game. Granted the Penguins were playing the second night of back-to-back games, but this was a game that they were “supposed to win”. These are the games that you can’t lose if you are going to be competitive in the league and be a contender. Unfortunately, tonight’s loss extends the struggles of a team that had one of their best starts in years, but has fallen prey to a 4-6-1 record during the month of December. Last season, the Penguins found their glue and played some of their best team hockey as they struggled through seemingly insurmountable injuries to key players. This season, a series of injuries to role forwards, top defensemen and the #1 goalie has created a more predictable outcome in which the Penguins have (at least temporarily) lost their way. They appear to have lost their confidence as well which is a hard thing to recover, especially in a tough schedule like the Penguins have had in December.
Some observations from tonight’s game.
Offensively, the Penguins have got to start putting traffic in front of the net and shooting the puck. It is hard to score on a goaltender in today’s NHL if he can see the shot, especially if most of the shots are coming from the outside. The Penguins also need to stop the fancy pass attempts in the offensive zone and just shoot the puck. Too many shooting opportunities are being given up in favor of a passing play. Too many blind passes are being easily picked off and turned over because nobody is home. The Penguins gave the puck away 11 times tonight. If the Penguins start thinking shoot instead of trying to make the perfect passing play, they are apt to create more scoring chances off from rebounds rather than wasted puck possession time and turnovers. The one place where the passing play could be used more effectively is on the breakout through the neutral zone and getting into the offensive zone. Too often the Penguins are relying on the dump-and-chase. If you are going to play that game, you need to be able to win the race to the puck in the corners, and that hasn’t been happening. As a result, it becomes a game of dump and chase it back into your own defensive zone as the opposing team gains possession and heads down the ice. In the 3rd period tonight, the Penguins fell prey to the Lightning trap and couldn’t find a way past it. As a result, and despite playing from behind in the 3rd period, the Penguins didn’t register their first shot until 11-minutes in. They need to find a way to break through the trap or they will be victims of it all season long. Finally, the Penguins did seem snake bit tonight as they missed the net on the few excellent opportunities that they did have.
Defensively, the Penguins are leaving the goaltender out to hang too often. It is unacceptable for one (or sometimes two) opposing players to find themselves open in front of the net with the puck multiple times during a game. With Hal Gill out of the lineup, this has become much more noticeable lately and tonight was no exception. Poor decisions were also made with defensemen trying to play the puck when they should take the body, and vice versa. The Penguins also struggled clearing the puck out of their own zone. Marc-Andre Fleury did his part as he stopped 27 of 29-shots for a 0.931 save percentage. Ryan Whitney was back in the lineup for his first game and played quite well given the long layoff with just one AHL conditioning game under his belt.
So the Penguins finish up 4-games in 6-nights with a 2-2 record. The remainder of the month won’t be any easier for the Penguins as they take on the Devils on the road on Friday and then the Canadiens at home on Saturday before finishing the month at home against the Bruins on Tuesday. Somehwere in all of this, they need to find a way to start consistently putting together some wins. With teams like New Jersey, Philadelphia and New York surging in the standings, the Penguins can ill afford to stay in a funk much longer.