What kind of work needs to be done?
With 27 games left in season, it’s time to fix concerns
TAMPA, Fla. — The Penguins were riding high for much of December and into January, winning eight in a row at one point and — on Jan. 4 — forging a first-place tie with the Washington Capitals atop the Metropolitan Division.
Times have certainly changed.
First place was nine points away after the New York Islanders won Sunday. The Penguins have lost nine of their past 14. If Carolina had beaten New Jersey Sunday (the Devils won, 3-2), the Penguins would have found themselves out of the playoff picture.
“We have to start finding ways here to get some points and win some hockey games,” Garrett Wilson said after a 5-4 loss Saturday night to the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena. “You guys all know it’s getting pretty tight there right now. We have to find a way to start winning some games.”
With only 27 games left in the regular season, the Penguins need to kick it into gear — not just to secure a playoff spot but also to find themselves playing well enough to make it out of the first round.
Of all the things that ail the Penguins at the moment, here, in order of most serious to least, are the six they should be most concerned about.
• Having enough depth Tampa Bay should be seen as the measuring stick and for good reason, whether that’s the Lightning’s overall depth or
how dynamic its top-end talent can be.
The Penguins need not worry about unseating Tampa, but they do need more from their support players. They have ground to make up even to reach the likes of Washington and Toronto at this point.
Phil Kessel has no points in four consecutive games; Tanner Pearson scored Saturday for the first time in 11 games; Dominik Simon has three goals in his past 32 games; Patric Hornqvist doesn’t have a point in eight consecutive games.
And it’s not just the forwards, either.
On defense, the Penguins thin out quickly behind Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz, who’s expected back soon. Best-case scenario, they can get Marcus Pettersson and Jack Johnson back to what they were before coach Mike Sullivan separated them.
Worst-case, there’s potentially one or two huge holes every night that the opposing coach can try to attack.
• How the injured guys will fare
It’s almost guaranteed the Penguins will welcome back Evgeni Malkin and Schultz this week. Likely Zach Aston-Reese, too.
The first two obviously are huge pieces for the Penguins both five-on-five and on the power play, which is suddenly 5 for 39 (12.8 percent) over the past 14 games.
Malkin was putting up points before he got hurt, but it’s hard to say he has had a strong season. It actually has been one of his worst, as evidenced by his minus-18 rating and three even-strength goals since Nov. 1.
Schultz, meanwhile, has not played since Oct. 13 and repeatedly has warned that it’s going to take some time for him to get back into the swing of things.
The problem, though, is that the Penguins need both at or close to full strength now.
• Counting on the goalies General manager Jim Rutherford can’t think about trading Tristan Jarry now, right?
Just when it looks as if Matt Murray can stay healthy and put this team on his back, there’s another — albeit minor — injury.
Murray’s numbers also have normalized a bit since his red-hot stretch from Dec. 15-Jan. 18, when he won 10 of 11 starts and posted a .944 save percentage.
Since the All-Star break, Murray has lost three of four with a save percentage of just .893.
Meanwhile, Sullivan can point to Casey DeSmith’s top-10 save percentage all he wants — DeSmith now is tied for 11th, by the way — but the 27-year-old has a .901 save percentage since Murray returned.
If Murray can rediscover his form and stay healthy, there’s zero issue here. But that second part has to be a concern at this point.
• Building chemistry amid changes
The trade for Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann was the fifth this season for Rutherford that has affected the NHL roster.
Add to that the Conor Sheary/Matt Hunwick deal over the summer and Rutherford’s moves July 1, and there has been a ton of turnover; nine of the 18 skaters that started the game against Tampa Bay weren’t on the roster at this point a season ago.
This is not to suggest there’s a chemistry problem with the Penguins because, by all accounts, there’s not. But it is tough to create continuity when there’s so much player movement happening.
• Preventing shorthanded goals
This one likely could be higher, since every single one seems to be crippling. There also has been a lot — an NHL-worst 12 on the season, a third of those coming in the past 14 games.
How comfortable will you feel when the power play takes the ice in March or April, that it won’t give up a huge one going the other way?
The tough part, though, is there’s little to do. You’re not going to take anybody off the top power play — except for maybe exchanging Kris Letang for Schultz on occasion — and you’re not going to turn Kessel or Malkin into Selke Trophy candidates.
The best hope is that, at some point, there’s a regression toward the mean and the violent swings in momentum stop.
• Bringing a consistent effort
Before Saturday, this was a concern. Rutherford was going to watch and evaluate his team to see whether it was willing to bring it on a consistent basis.
Criticize the Penguins execution against the Lightning all you want. They definitely did some things poorly, but they did show enough emotion to make Rutherford feel at least a little better about this particular concern.
Left winger Garrett Wilson scored his first NHL goal Saturday night in Tampa. Still, the Penguins lost 5-4, their ninth loss in 14 games. “We have to start finding ways here to get some points and win some hockey games,” Wilson said after the game.
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin might be having one of the worst seasons of his career with a plus-minus of minus-18 and just three even-strength goals since Nov. 1