"A lot of games are won before the puck drops."
Yep. Close the curtain. Call it a day.
That was a mere sliver of Mike Sullivan's postgame assessment Monday night at the PPG Paints Arena podium, this following the Penguins' latest loss to the last-place Devils, 6-3, but it couldn't have been more on point. Because the home team woke up way too late from the NHL's All-Star break, possibly pondering South Beach, Jackson Hole, Napa Valley and all the other hot vacation spots they'd just hit, while the visitors made up their minds to, you know, show up for work.
How in the hell has this New Jersey team, now missing the NHL's reigning MVP in Taylor Hall, taken all three meetings this season by a combined score of 15-6?
"They've just outworked us," Sidney Crosby came back to basically that same question. "As much as you don't like saying it, it's the truth."
Sure is. And what went missing this time?
"It was everything. Execution. Urgency. Those are probably the two biggest things, but those are big ones."
Sure are. And what to take from it?
Candidly, not much, at least not from this perspective. I'm not inclined to connect this to the 2-3 Western trip that preceded the eight days off, any more than I'm inclined to connect it to the six-week span of riveting success that preceded those, any more than I'm inclined to try to link up the 1-7-1 record against last-place teams all season. All of that feels too forced.
But I'm very much inclined to talk about ... wait for it ... zone entries!
Anyone with me?
Hey, where's everyone going?
OK, well, for the handful of you who couldn't find the fire exit and are stuck here, let me start with this little lesson: The first -- and dumbest -- thing the Penguins do when they aren't mentally prepared is to turn over the puck at the attacking blue line. It's not a red flag as much as it's a screaming siren that they're about to perform poorly, not just in that facet but in all.
Crosby dishes to Jake Guentzel, keeps skating through the circles and ... eh. Guentzel flicks a one-foot-planted wrister from 55 feet that Keith Kinkaid could stop in a coma. The puck's held for a faceoff. No sustained attack. No meaningful offense. No pressure on the opposing defense. Nothing.
This is what Sullivan derisively calls a 'one-and-done.' One play and done.
So is this:
Evgeni Malkin bursts beautifully around Marcus Johansson at center red, gains the blue line, then tries an inside-out on Sami Vatanen, to no avail. To Malkin's right were Phil Kessel and Bryan Rust. To Malkin's fore was the rest of the New Jersey zone. But his bid for a double-dazzle ricocheted back off Vatanen's right skate and resulted in the Devils countering.
One play and done.
One more, out of about a billion potential clips:
Ugh. I can't even concoct commentary for this one.
I'd show you the one of Riley Sheahan trying to stickhandle his way through a clothesline of white sweaters, but that's not suitable for viewers of all ages.
Give the Devils, in particular John Hynes, credit for stacking the blue line. Teams inside the division always will operate with more pointed strategic approaches, and this is a super-smart way to play the Penguins ... when they're being super-dumb. Which they were. And which they can be far too often.
"We pressured them up high in the zone, and it really worked for us," Andy Greene, part of New Jersey's top defense pair, would say. "It gave us a chance to get the puck, go D-to-D, make our own plays going the other way."
I'd written before this game about the Penguins' identity, or at least what it should be, and being physical -- per their definition, meaning battling for puck possession -- was stressed. But within that, and in Sullivan's second breath in responding to my question on that subject over the weekend, his emphasis switched to decision-making once possession's been won.
This is why. This is the real connection, if anyone's seeking one from this outcome.
Crosby, the team's other leaders and everyone wanted to win, wanted to try hard. That's in their pedigree, lest anyone forget. But when they aren't channeled in to the way they've got to play to win, the way they'd dialed up over those six sizzling weeks, then they end up wasting their effort on chasing.
I asked Matt Cullen about this, and he took it top-shelf:
"Right back on our heels," indeed.
• The coach didn't exactly disagree with his captain regarding the effort expended. Nor did he disagree when asked if it's concerning.
"Yeah, it is concerning," Sullivan replied. "We knew what we were up against. Every team in this league plays hard. Give Jersey credit. They played hard, and they defended hard. ... Those are the things we talk about when we talk about forging an identity. For me, the game's rooted in competitive spirit. You've got to be willing to invest emotionally, first and foremost."
• The Penguins under Sullivan had been 9-0 when returning from a break of four-plus days. Poof.
• This, obviously, can't happen:
But beyond being beaten by Damon Severson from way up on the Bluff, Matt Murray was no more or less blah than his entire team. He didn't make great saves. They didn't make great plays.
Singling out the goaltender here would be outrageously simplistic.
• This also can't happen:
No caveats on this one. Just indefensible. And I'm not referring to Evgeni Malkin's giveaway but his pouting and body language after committing it. If he'd simply tried to recover from the mistake, it might all have been fine.
That's the inexplicable part: Effort, in general, isn't his issue. As Sullivan would stress after this, "I know how much he cares about this team and about helping us win games." That's dead-on. But the pouting, however brief, ends up looking so embarrassing. For him and the team he cares so much about.
• Break up the power play?
After an NHL-high 11th short-handed goal allowed, you bet. The first unit's been granted chance after chance after chance to show what Sullivan was caustically calling "a defensive conscience," only to betray that repeatedly.
And it sure sounds like his patience has expired.
“Yeah, and I think we’re probably there," he answered when asked about making a change. "We have to take more responsibility for having a defensive conscience when guys are in trouble, and it doesn't seem like we're recognizing the danger. One of the things I’ve said all along is that we’re trying to get our group to heed the lessons. But if we don’t heed the lessons, then I think something needs to change.”
The first splitting of Crosby and Malkin onto separate units since Dan Bylsma briefly tried it?
That's what I'm thinking. If going with two defensemen, which is logical, then Malkin would either move up front with Crosby and Kessel -- bumping Patric Hornqvist and leaving no real net-front presence -- or he'd center his own unit. Taking Kessel off would be nuts, as most traffic funnels through him. Taking Crosby off is unfathomable.
Anyone seeing an alternate solution?
• I'll remind: Bylsma was roasted alive for splitting the stars.
• When Garrett Wilson's your best player, chances are excellent you're being blown out by a last-place team. But hey, he actually was that, pumping out four shots, six shot attempts, seven hits and coming oh-so-close to that elusive first NHL goal in his 59th career game.
"I don't think I'm going to sleep tonight," he told me.
Heck, he's the only one who should.
• Finding only a fourth-round draft pick for Jamie Oleksiak is disappointing, but getting any pick in any trade isn't. Sure, Jim Rutherford's likely to trade one of the three fourth-rounders he's now accumulated, but even that could theoretically occur on the draft floor in a bid to move up in a given round.
We're well past the stage where Rutherford needs to resume taking the draft seriously.
• Our Taylor Haase counted 13 NHL teams represented among the scouts in attendance, one of those being the Jets, who've been connected to Derick Brassard. It would have been quite the power move had anyone from the Penguins tapped that Winnipeg guy's shoulder after Brassard's second-period snipe and whispered, 'Dude does that all the time.' Same thing for when Brassard drew that five-minute major for incidentally bloodying Vatanen in the third. "Oh, yeah, he's got a real nasty streak, this one. Would club his best bud over the head for a loose puck."
• Better yet, authentic commentary on Brassard picked up from ice level:
Overheard in the crowd after Brassard was seemingly disinterested in receiving a pass on the power play:
Fan A: “Why are you still a Penguin?”
— Matt Sunday (@mattsunday) January 29, 2019
• Not a soul will second this, but give it up for the Devils.
I mean that. They're 19-23-7 overall, next-to-last in the East, but they've genuinely played well against the Penguins. Say what one will about the losers' role in that, but it takes a healthy level of opponent-specific confidence to come into this building missing four injured regulars, including Hall, and do it yet again.
"I think we match up well against them," Kinkaid would say, fresh off 37 saves. "We play good team defense against them, we put our opportunities away ... it's just one of those things. We always have our A-game against those guys."
Full credit to Ray Shero for crafting a fun, fast roster in a place where that once was anathema.
• As a fun aside, it's worth occasionally acknowledging, I think, that the NHL's schedule-makers trust only a handful of cities with regular Monday night games and that Pittsburgh, because of the sellout streak -- now at 555 -- has been among them for more than a decade. On this night, the first after the league's All-Star break, the only two games anywhere were both played in Pennsylvania. And this one, despite the weather, the less-than-marquee matchup and the worst weeknight for any sporting event's draw, still topped a 95 percent turnstile showing, as most games here do.
Never to be taken for granted.
• Whatever. It was bound to be a bad game regardless, right?
Let's see if any of this rolls into Wednesday against those unrelenting Lightning bolts. Because if it does, the result will be way, way more lopsided than this was. As will the broader outlook.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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