What kind of work needs to be done?

With 27 games left in sea­son, it’s time to fix con­cerns

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Sports - ja­son mackey

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.

Chris O’Meara/As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.