Courtesy of Point Park University

Kovacevic: Another point chipped away


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Casey DeSmith watches the Panthers' Mike Matheson score in overtime Thursday night in Sunrise, Fla. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

SUNRISE, Fla. -- It's a point.

"And it's a big point," Mike Sullivan was more than just mouthing late Thursday night at BB&T Center, where the Penguins were put down in overtime by the Panthers, 3-2. "And that's what I told the guys afterward: It's a big point."

They all are, and I offer that cliche-free: This maddening collection of eclectic talent is now 28-19-7, which has them, crazily, five points out of first place in the NHL's Metropolitan Division, but also in the eighth and final Eastern Conference's playoff spot, a mere three points ahead of the current bubble team, the Hurricanes.

So yeah, all of this counts. Every game. Every point. Heck, every play.

And that, to be candid, is what would have bugged me about this particular showing, regardless of outcome. Because these Penguins, after falling to that Carolina bubble team by 4-0 a couple nights earlier, had no earthly reason to emerge as flat as they did in this one. Not for a few minutes, either. Right through the first intermission.

As Bryan Rust, by far the visitors' most consistent performer on this night, worded it, "We've got to build off the things we did well in this game, but we've also got to learn from the rest."

Meaning the first period.

Meaning this:

See, the Penguins of late have worked hard, focused hard. What they haven't done, within the context of an actual playoff race, is work hard enough, focus hard enough.

There's a difference, and it's demonstrated in that faceoff up there. It came early in the second. It was the start of a 57-second, five-on-three power play. And it also was the end, essentially.

Sidney Crosby doesn't exactly outdraw Aleksander Barkov, but he does his job. On a five-on-three, the center's aim isn't so much to beat his opponent but, rather, to not lose. If the puck bounces around, as happens here, so be it. Because the wingers -- both of them -- are instructed to pounce from either hashmark to ensure possession, effectively making the battle three against one.

In this event, that's Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel.

Full disclosure: My one cardinal rule in writing hockey columns is that I can question anyone's effort except Hornqvist's. I've never had such a rule pre-Hornqvist, and I might never apply it again once he's gone. But while he's here, with all he's proven, that'll be the standard.

Besides, honestly, he doesn't mess up. He's on the dot right away, whirling around to try to win the puck.

Kessel ... not so much.

Scroll back up and take another look. I'll meet you back here.

See what I mean?

He's kind of there on the dot. He's kind of going after the puck. And then, once it slides back to Florida defenseman Josh Brown, he kind of tries to pry it back, only to get beaten by Brown's super-smooth chip to himself at the boards, followed by the long clear.

I'm taking nothing away from Brown here. That's an exceptional play for anyone, never mind a rookie in his eighth NHL game.

"Brownie was huge out there for a young guy with not a lot of experience in the league," Bob Boughner, the Panthers' coach, glowed. "I thought he did a great job on the five-on-three."

And yet, to repeat, the Penguins work and focus was hard, but not hard enough. As Boughner's counterpart bitterly bemoaned.

“You get almost a minute of five-on-three time, you expect to score," Sullivan fairly seethed. "It starts off the faceoff. There’s a 50/50 puck, and we don’t compete hard enough on it. So now, we lose 20 seconds going 200 feet to get the puck. Whereas, if we expend some energy on the 50/50 and win the puck battle, maybe we get more zone time."

This is what a grown man looks when he's fairly seething:

There was so much more -- and less -- to the Penguins' opening one-third of this game. But it felt that much more annoying that the power play was involved, in that they're now 1-for-18 since the All-Star break and, on top of that, they never look more lethargic in any facet than when they're piddling around with the extra man.

Solve that, and I'll bet the whole identity thing comes rushing back.

“I think we’re working toward it," Crosby replied when queried yet again about to the whole identity thing. "It’s something that we all have in the back of our mind. We want to make sure that we’re playing the same way every night. I think we know what that is. We’ve got to put games together and find a way to all do that consistently.”

Never forget that the Penguins aren't the Penguins when they aren't scoring. That's been their identity since Mario Lemieux first stared down Pete Peeters. Other factors can and do drive their offense, but they're still no one and nothing without their goals. And they've got four of those to show for the past three games, all losses.

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