LOS ANGELES -- When Kris Letang is wrongly blamed for messing up, he'll bite back. It's how he's always been wired.
But when he bona fide messes up ...
"One mistake made this happen," he was telling me late Saturday night at Staples Center, where the Penguins lost to the Kings, 5-2, primarily because of -- surprise! -- yet another short-handed goal given up. "It's my fault. All my fault."
It was, actually. This time.
His side was down by one late in the second period. Power play at hand. Quality puck movement, player motion, the possibility for a real momentum shift.
That's when Letang tried a blind, behind-his-back pass to Phil Kessel down the left half-wall, had that intercepted by Jeff Carter, had to fly back to defend the still-electric duo of Carter and Anze Kopitar on a two-on-one, took himself way out of the action with a sliding poke attempt at Carter, then could only watch as Kopitar collected the loose puck and whipped it by Casey DeSmith.
"A mistake like that, a mistake like I made," Letang would say before we were done, "that can't happen."
It can't. But it keeps happening. Again and again and again. That's 10 short-handed goals allowed, most in the NHL. This despite non-stop admonishment from Mike Sullivan and his assistants. Despite ad nauseam repetition in practices, including nearly half of their hourlong session here Thursday. Despite pretty much everything else going so swimmingly these past few weeks.
Well, it sure isn't because it's some vexing, complex issue. If anything, at least from this perspective, it's got a plug-n-play, twin-pronged solution:
1. Be smarter.
2. Try harder.
In that scene above, Letang can't try that pass. It's a zero-percenter. He sees Carter's there. He also sees Evgeni Malkin, wide open across at the other point. He also sees Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel manning spots near Jonathan Quick's crease. Either option -- point to point, or just a plain shot -- would have been infinitely preferable to trying to trick Carter, a 34-year-old veteran, with no material gain beyond a routine distribution to the half-wall.
Now, go back up to that scene to absorb the effort component. Watch Letang's help come back, staggering, sloppily or, in Kessel's case, outright lazily.
Better yet, take a second glance at the Associated Press photo we purchased for the top of this column:
[caption id="attachment_760628" align="aligncenter" width="640"] The Kings' Anze Kopitar sets to shoot on Casey DeSmith. - AP[/caption]
That's about two seconds before Kopitar shot. The player in the far background is Malkin. The player in the prone position, obviously, is DeSmith. All of the Penguins' other players, remarkably, aren't pictured.
Any wonder Sullivan was so visibly steamed afterward?
Ouch. Quite a roll there ...
"It's not what penalty-kills are doing to us. It's what we're doing to ourselves."
"Even though we're on the power play, we have to have some conscience defensively."
"It's just carelessness. It's a lack of diligence in the important parts of the rink."
"If we do turn the puck over, we've got to have the urgency to defend that we haven't shown to this point."
"We have to track back to our net ... we've got to stop. We can't just swing by."
"Other teams are all aware that we have four forwards on the ice. We have to have a heightened awareness ourselves."
Funny thing, though: Sullivan won't change that facet. Nor should he, if you ask me. This power play is too talented, too productive and comes with the constant threat that keeps teams from wanting to take penalties on the Penguins, and that can't be discarded because of a smarts/effort issue. These five players -- and Patric Hornqvist when healthy -- have all of that and then some.
The coach has every right to demand that of them, so good for him.
Asked for maybe the dozenth time this season if he'd consider two defensemen -- it's been tried only in tiny spurts -- Sullivan replied, "You know, we've talked about it all year. But I just keep going back to this group of players being together since I've been the coach. And they have been arguably the best power play in the league. So it's really hard for me, given their body of work, as large as it is, to ignore that. I just think we've got to do a better job. So we're going to challenge them to do a better job. Because I know they're capable."
Challenging, of course, is easier when dealing with scrubs as opposed to, oh, franchise icons. Lifting Letang or Malkin or almost anyone from the top unit feels unconscionable. It could cause problems we can't even conceive.
"You know, I don't think that's the answer," Sullivan responded to that point being raised. "The answer is, let's heed the lessons. We just have to do a better job. I know they know that. I'm not saying anything here that they don't already know. They're a mature group. They're a terrific power play. We just have to be better. We simply have to be better."
Not just Malkin. Not just Letang. I feel it's important to stress here that the last line of defense doesn't always need to be that.
Take the Malkin giveaway the previous night in Anaheim:
Malkin tried a move at center red that will look familiar to longtime fans, as it was one Alexei Kovalev, the all-time master of power-play zone entry, would pull off as easily as he could breathe. The shoulder dips, the puck pulls back to the inside, and see ya. Malkin's pretty good at it, too. And, as Sullivan answered with a laugh when I brought this up before the game here, "Sometimes when you talk to these players, they just tell you that it's a play or a move they know they can make. It's a different kind of conversation."
No doubt. But my emphasis with this play is on everyone else in white. Look up at the far boards, in particular, at Letang. He was peeling backward a bit, but really headed up ice. That made Malkin the last line of defense, and that can't happen, either. Someone needs to hang back a bit for support. It's incumbent on Sullivan and all concerned to shore this area up, as well.
Clearly, the captain will need to push on all fronts. He sure sounds like he's on the same page.
"I think it's just a matter of being smart," Crosby said, "of taking what's given to us, not trying to force anything, making sure we're working hard to get back and help each other when teams do come the other way. Other teams know the stats. They know what we've been giving up. And they're going to be aggressive, force us into mistakes. We've got to make sure we don't make them."
Feel free to copy and paste all of the above for future reference.
My curtain calls go to …
1. Jeff Carter
Kings right winger
He's 34, but he can still pulverize a puck, as well as putting it right where he wants. He had a breathtaking goal of this type, plus two assists. More on this below.
2. Anze Kopitar
A two-time Selke winner tends to get it done at both ends, but his slick shorty and much later empty-netter still stood out.
3. Jonathan Quick
He was tasked almost as much -- 38 saves -- as John Gibson was across town the previous night, and he turned on his trademark acrobatics throughout.
[caption id="attachment_760585" align="aligncenter" width="640"] The Kings' Oscar Fantenberg and Jonathan Quick clear a puck from Riley Sheahan. - AP[/caption]
• Jamie Oleksiak, defenseman, was struck in the face by the stick of the Kings' Brendan Leipsic and was felled for about a minute. Leipsic was issued a minor, and Oleksiak was able to return. Oleksiak told me after the game he's fine.
• Justin Schultz, defenseman, skated loosely while taking the ice in full gear for the first time after the skate Friday in Anaheim. He's expected back in February.
• Patric Hornqvist, right winger, is out indefinitely with a concussion. He didn't accompany the team on the trip.
• Zach Aston-Reese, right winger, is out indefinitely with a broken left hand. He's on the trip.
Guentzel's two goals gave him five over these two Southern California games, as well as 23 for the season, one more than the career high he reached in 2017-18 through a full 82-game schedule:
And as long as we're talking about shorties, the first one up there was the game's icebreaker 5:30 after the opening faceoff, the follow-up of Crosby and Guentzel charging up the ice two-on-one on the penalty-kill.
Could the Penguins be scaring other teams' power plays, too?
I asked Sullivan this, and it was a hoot to hear where he took it.
"Well, we've scored a lot of goals short-handed lately," Sullivan replied to my question, referencing five such goals in the past 15 games. "When we're putting Crosby and Guentzel out there, I would think power plays would take notice. I would think it would change their mindset a little bit making safer plays. Because if they don't, and a mistake is made, those guys have the ability to quick-strike and finish."
This was the Kings' third goal, by Alex Iafallo:
It was a lucky ricochet off his frame in front, but it also followed a fine series of passing into the Pittsburgh zone. And that series was ably assisted by exactly one member of the Penguins, Derick Brassard, not picking up anyone on the sequence.
This is a repeat: He doesn't fit.
But there was other badness, too, some of it out of the Penguins' control.
The ice was a choppy, slushy mess, presumably because the NBA's Clippers had played on the hardcourt covering just a few hours earlier. I entered the building about four hours before faceoff, and workers were still applying finishing touches. Such a short window doesn't give the new surfaces a chance to settle.
Also, even though the Penguins had won their past three games when playing back-to-backs against a fresher opponent, that wild rally Friday night in Anaheim clearly took a little extra wind. It wasn't until the third period, when they registered 21 of the 26 shots, that they found their legs at all.
Not that any excuses were offered:
Marcus Pettersson's 6-foot-4 height and crazy-long stick have helped him be a pleasant surprise for the Penguins since the trade. But his pencil-thin limbs -- really, he can't weigh an ounce over 150 pounds -- can be a hindrance, too.
In this game, he got into another fight that didn't exactly go his way, with the Kings' Matt Luff basically whaling away at him in the second period. And a period earlier, Carter outmuscled him at the Los Angeles blue line to create his own break, which he finished thusly:
That made it 2-1, a lead that was never returned.
"Just a great shot," DeSmith told me. "I'd like to think I didn't give him much to shoot at there."
He didn't. Look at how far he emerged to challenge. But Carter's been picking corners all the way back to his Philadelphia days, and he's done it all kinds of ways.
Still, he was characteristically nonchalant about the entire sequence.
"I kind of got tied up at our blue line," Carter said of his entanglement with Pettersson. "And by the time I got down the other way ... I don't usually slap it there. But I didn’t have any other option, really. I just saw a little opening and shot."
Only in L.A. could organizers call for a 'Star Wars' themed night, to stage a mindblowing postgame pyrotechnics show, then still feel the need to summon Snoop Dogg to be the DJ for warmups and to drop the puck for the ceremonial faceoff between Crosby and Kopitar.
Similarly, only in L.A. could I pester Snoop about the sorry state of the Steelers:
Skills you don't get taught in the Duquesne journalism program, my friends.
THE OTHER SIDE
The Kings are old, slow and done. Overpriced, too, toward the cap.
Oh, there's definitely talent at hand, but it's in much the same spirit as what's in Chicago, the decade's other faded franchise. And it'll be fascinating, I think, to see if and when Rob Blake dares to blow it all up and make some of his stars available. Broken into pieces, they'd be worth a mint.
For now, they'll have to settle for the satisfaction of being, uh, 18-25-3 overall and 2-4 in January.
"It's a good win," Willie Desjardins, the coach, spoke from the podium. "That's a good team we played. We had at least two good periods, got a few breaks, and we'll take it. We've been struggling."
No question. But again, there's talent. Because even better than the aforementioned plays was this elegant redirection pass by the once-great Ilya Kovalchuk for Leipsic to tap home Los Angeles' fourth goal:
Blink and you'll miss it, but that puck's bouncing. And yeah, he intended for that to be a pass.
The Penguins are off Sunday, then fly up to San Jose to practice Monday, 4 p.m., at SAP Center. They play the Sharks there the next night. Chris Bradford will cover that, as well as the rest of this trip to Phoenix and Las Vegas.
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