DETROIT — The game had long been over, and the visiting locker room at Little Caesars Arena had long since emptied save for the captain in one corner.
Sidney Crosby had just addressed the usual brigade of cameras and microphones following the Penguins’ latest seriously lousy loss, 5-2 to the one-stinking-win-to-show-for-a-month’s-work Red Wings. And as ever, he’d done his duty. He’d addressed each question, he’d looked each of us in the eye when answering, and he’d even offered an ‘Oh, sorry,’ to one reporter when accidentally bumping them.
But then the script turned. Because, rather than the standard rise to leave the room, he sat there. He leaned against the back of the stall, gazed upward, gave out a double-lunged exhale, then grabbed an empty Gatorade cup and whipped it into a nearby wastebasket.
Equally quintessential Sid, just not the one most see.
They care, these guys. All of them. They’ve got the rings to prove it. Some have two. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have three. Patric Hornqvist cares so much that he and his wife had a baby at 9:26 p.m. Monday, and he still found a way to fly up Tuesday in time for this. Matt Murray cares so much that he’d voluntarily invested a big chunk of his morning here working on that nagging glove side, then stuffed a breakaway right off the bat, looked sharp all night and still lost, then declined to meet with media afterward.
Carl Hagelin cares just as much.
“It’s unacceptable,” he told me without even being asked. No, really, I walked up to him, turned on the recorder, and off he went. “We get the first goal in the first minute. They’re on the second half of back-to-backs. After that, we should play smart hockey, get it deep and hopefully tire them out. But …”
“But we didn’t do that. We gave them life. It was a fun game for them to play, I’ll bet.”
So what’s left to be spoken?
“This time of year, things shouldn’t have to be said. We’ve been in this situation before. We know how hard you have to play to win games. We didn’t do that here. It’s disappointing.”
Any of that sound familiar?
It sure should, because we’ve been hearing various versions of it since the 10-1 blowout by the Blackhawks in the opening week. Back then, the blame went to the awful October schedule. Or Antti Niemi. And then it morphed into general fatigue. Then boredom. Then falling short on the road. Then not defending with urgency. Then not blocking enough shots.
It’s not that they made those excuses. Hardly ever happened. Rather, it’s that they’d follow up by promising this or that to correct each one. And they’d speak with such conviction, such passion that, given all they’d achieved the previous two summers, the natural default mode was to believe them. To expect them to be better the next time out.
Watch and listen to Letang struggle for words — I mean visibly — when I asked him how something like this keeps happening:
Right. Two points are coming Thursday night in Newark. That’s the night they’ll get it all right, the night they find that concentration, that consistency that’s been bobbing and weaving all winter long. That’s what he said, and within 48 hours, we’ll see what transpires.
I respect this collection of athletes more than any I’ve covered in my three decades in this business, just as I respect those who stay and answer questions like mine after a hard loss. I respect Crosby, Hagelin, Letang and many others more than I can describe.
So please take it in the appropriate context when I offer this: Just shut up and play.
Remember Mike Sullivan’s ‘Just play’ mantra?
It’s time for an amendment.
That head coach cares as much about the Penguins as any dozen people anyone could encounter. He preaches all of the above relentlessly and, yet, takes care to mix the message, to turn the volume up or down, to go to the group or to the individual, all in attempts to make sure he’s not background noise.
After this one, from what I gathered, he let loose with his feelings briefly, vocally and with a page-turning push toward Newark. Not a soul budged from his stall until the room was opened to reporters, something only seen under this coach after he’s taken center stage in there.
But so what?
It resonates some nights, some periods, some shifts, then ricochets off their skulls the next.
Sunday night back home, the Penguins overtook the Flyers, 5-4 in overtime, thanks to four magnificent plays and no thanks to conceding 45 shots. Afterward, all concerned vowed to go hard at the shortcomings once they got to Detroit, notably achieving a better balance in shots, blocking more by the opponent, bearing down on the power play and finally fixing this month-long slump for the penalty-kill.
They’d go 0 for 4.
The Red Wings outshot them, 20-12, through two periods, 26-24 in total.
The Red Wings blocked 25 shots to their nine.
The Red Wings didn’t really have to do much for the Penguins’ power play to go 0 for 2 since there might not have been a single authoritative setup all night.
And the Red Wings became the latest in a long line to shatter their penalty-kill, scoring the game’s pivotal goal on this back-door alley-oop to Frans Nielsen that would have made the tenant Pistons proud:
It was all talk. They might have meant it, but they couldn’t have believed it.
Below was Niklas Kronwall’s goal in the first period. The easiest way to pick out Kronwall is that he’s the only skater in the Pittsburgh slot expending a solitary bead of sweat:
Just 41 seconds after Nielsen’s jam, below was Luke Glendening making it 3-1 in the second period, presumably having had his spirits lifted by Brian Dumoulin burning roaming minutes to wish him well from the opposite edge of the crease:
And if you thought the Penguins looked static on that Kronwall goal, here they are in full-statue form on Darren Helm’s backbreaker at 6:21 of the third:
Again, it’s helpful to note that the Red Wings are easily distinguished by being in actual motion.
There’s nothing to study here, nothing to dissect. This isn’t Xs and Os. It isn’t even personnel. It’s just laziness. It’s a lack of fire. Maybe it’s just in the moment, but those moments can add up.
How to change it?
Well, if words won’t work, why not numbers?
This was the season’s low point, from my perspective, and that’s saying something given the blowout losses in Chicago, Tampa, Winnipeg and other places along this wobbly path. But there was always some kind of bona fide excuse accompanying those, and there wasn’t with this one. The Red Wings were 1-12 in March, they’re one of the loosest operations in the league, and they’d just played — and lost — the previous night in Montreal.
Nowhere to run from this one.
I asked Sullivan what’s left to be said since we’ve already heard everything before, and his answer, not surprisingly, was a beauty:
Catch the first part of that?
“We’re fighting for our lives,” he said. “We’re fighting for a playoff spot.”
I know. I had the same initial reaction. But then, I flipped open the NHL app on my iPhone and found the following info:
Look way down at the bottom. The team on the fringe of the Eastern playoff picture, the only one that could enter the mix and disrupt all of it, is Florida. And the Panthers, in addition to being the NHL’s hottest team on a 13-3-1 roll — with victories over the Penguins, Capitals, Maple Leafs, Bruins and Blue Jackets in there — have three games in hand. So what looks like a seven-point gap could be a one-point gap in a snap.
I’m not suggesting it’ll happen. But I’m no longer suggesting it won’t, either.
Besides, if that doesn’t click to create the necessary urgency with this group, then I daresay it won’t be easy to suddenly manufacture it for the games that matter as much as the Penguins seem to want these games to matter.