The Penguins have now lost 22 games in the 2018-19 NHL season, 29 if including overtime and shootouts. And among those losses, there have been a few where they gave up more goals or lost by larger margins than they did on this Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena.
However, this one, 4-0 to the Sharks, still might have been ugliest of all, uglier even than the teams’ previous meeting, a 5-2 loss last month in San Jose.
The Penguins didn’t just lose in what was supposed to be a measuring stick game, they weren’t even competitive for extended stretches. Most troubling, they were almost a caricature of their worst selves, like a mashup of their previous 29 losses pressed into the first 20 minutes.
It featured their goaltender — Casey DeSmith this time — kicking out a huge rebound to allow the first goal. It had another short-handed goal-against courtesy of a Phil Kessel turnover. And, for good measure, it had Jack Johnson getting caught flat footed on the Sharks’ third.
“It snowballed from there,” a still steamed Mike Sullivan said about a half-hour later. “We gave them, in my mind, three fairly easy goals. It’s hard to overcome that.”
And that was just the first period.
“Special teams played a big role and we were on the wrong side of it,” Matt Cullen added.
In the end, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and their coach were ejected after a wild brawl erupted during a third-period TV timeout, resulting in 68 combined penalty minutes over the finals 20 minutes. The Sharks’ Evander Kane, long a thorn in the Penguins’ side, insisted that he was merely looking at the whiteboard behind the Penguins’ bench and not staring anyone down. That’s ludicrous on several fronts, but mostly because whatever was written on that board, clearly wasn’t working for the home team.
The Penguins were guilty on many, many fronts but, to me, it started with a lack of a shooter’s mentality, as Sullivan has called it. They had 26 shots, 6.5 fewer than their season average, with just 13 blocked. But some of the decisions they made with the puck on Thursday were just puzzling.
With his team down three late in the second, Kessel intercepted Brent Burns, corralled the puck, and then … tries a back-handed pass to Zach Aston-Reese that goes nowhere:
To be fair, Kessel actually did have four shots on goal, just his second multi-shot game in the last 10.
“Struggling, what can I say? Just not going in” said Kessel, who has now gone 11 games since his last goal.
Here’s Jake Guentzel, the team’s leading goal-scorer, passing up a shot from the slot early in the third:
“We have to start getting shots to the net and shooting more, myself in particular,” Guentzel was telling me. “Rebounds are created from that. I think that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to create some rebound goals.”
Still down 3-0 a minute after Guentzel’s missed chance, Malkin makes one tremendous move to get past Radim Simek, kicking the puck up to his stick, and then tries to make another move — the old Peter Forsberg postage stamp — that Martin Jones was simply having none of:
None of these were high-percentage plays. The Penguins had other chances to get back in the game but, well, they never gave themselves a chance. Here’s Matt Cullen on what should have been a clear breakaway in the second:
Yeah, it was one of those kinds of nights. And it comes at a most inopportune moment with four days to go before the trade deadline. Jim Rutherford told DKPittsburghSports.com the other day that the Penguins’ problems could be solved in-house if they get contributions from two or three struggling players.
After witnessing Thursday’s game, one must wonder what’s going to happen between now and 3 p.m. on Monday. If Rutherford wasn’t tempted to act before it, might he now? Is this still a legit Cup contender as is?
The Penguins have won four of their last six but their last win against a current playoff team came Jan. 30. They are now 32-22-7, which is still good enough for third place in the Metro, but just a point ahead of the Hurricanes for the dreaded second wild-card spot.
“Yeah, we’re a playoff team,” Guentzel said. “We were playing well. Just have to move by this one.”
It can’t come soon enough.
My curtain calls go to …
1. Tomas Hertl
Think Penguins goalies will be glad not to face Hertl again? With two more goals Thursday, he finishes the season series with five goals on five shots in two games against the Penguins.
2. Brent Burns
The soon-to-be 34-year-old defenseman just refuses to grow old. With a goal and two assists, Burns padded his lead in scoring by defensemen to 10. Perhaps another Norris Trophy is headed his way.
3. Evander Kane
Sharks right winger
Love him or hate (think we know the answer to that in Pittsburgh), Kane is an impact player. In addition to his short-handed goal, he was in the middle of everything, including a third-period tussle with Tanner Pearson.
Seriously, it would be hard to find any positives in this loss. Shower well. Fire up the jet and get the heck out to Philly pronto. The Penguins have played the Flyers extremely well in Philadelphia, albeit not in the middle of a 69,000-seat football stadium. Including the playoffs, they haven’t lost in the City of Brotherly Love since March 15, 2017.
And if it’s any consolation, the Flyers got smoked Thursday night, too. Carter Hart got pulled for the second straight game after giving up three goals on nine shots in a 5-1 loss to the Canadiens.
“I think all the games are important right now,” Kris Letang was saying. “It doesn’t matter who you play. All the points you can get are important.”
The Penguins had said all the right things Thursday morning about not taking penalties and respecting San Jose’s sixth-ranked power play which is so good it can afford to put Burns, a former Norris winner, on their first unit and former Norris winner Erik Karlsson on the second.
So what happened? Johnson took a tripping penalty on Joonas Donskoi just :56 into the first period. Naturally, Hertl converted just one second later — not really, there was a clock glitch — but it did seem that way. The goal actually came 1:44 into the period.
That was just the first of 12 penalties the Penguins took for 49 minutes. The Sharks converted on three of six opportunities, including Burns’ five-on-three goal in garbage time. The three power play goals-against were the second-most allowed by the Penguins this season. They gave up four to the Lightning on Nov. 15.
Again, to be fair to Kessel, the Penguins’ power play was already going nowhere when he turned the puck over as he tried to enter the offensive blue line. The first unit had already been on the ice for 1:20 and had zero shots with one offsides call against them. Despite the recent success of the second unit, Sullivan opted to keep the first unit on the ice for the ensuing faceoff.
Not 30 seconds later, Burns knocked the puck off Kessel’s stick to set up Kane’s shorthanded breakaway the other way at 10:01 of the first period:
And that, folks, was the last we saw of the No. 1 unit. Sullivan went back to playing two defensemen on the point with Letang and Justin Schultz. Most interestingly, he also pulled the slumping Hornqvist off the top unit in favor of Guentzel. Can’t say we’ve seen that one recently.
Will we see those power play units Saturday against the Flyers?
“No, I haven’t had a chance to digest the game at this point,” Sullivan said. “We’ll talk about it as a group of coaches and make decisions from there.”
The coach might want some Rolaids because, if you lost count — can’t blame you — that’s the 13th shorty the Penguins have surrendered this season, two more than the Bruins. The team record is 22, so there’s still time.
Given the opponent, DeSmith might have been a surprise starter to some, but he shouldn’t have been. Sullivan has shown plenty of faith in his young backup, using him against top contenders like Tampa Bay (Feb. 9) and Las Vegas (Jan. 19).
The only controversy is that Sullivan stuck with him after giving up three goals on San Jose’s first seven shots. To be fair, two were power-play goals and one was the short-handed breakaway. The Sharks are supposed to score in those situations and, credit to them, they did. But still.
It’s interesting that with the Penguins needing a spark, Sullivan didn’t use his timeout or go to Matt Murray to start the second. Sullivan had benched Murray for the final 20 minutes of Saturday’s game against the Flames when looking to give his team a lift.
THE OTHER SIDE
The Sharks wanted to get a quick start in their first game of a four-game road trip. Clearly, the Sharks checked off all the proverbial boxes with their dominant win Thursday.
San Jose, which was coming off a controversial overtime loss in Boston on Tuesday, jumped out to a 3-0 lead courtesy of three special teams goals.
“Critical, especially the first one,” Peter DeBoer said of his team’s first period. “You come into this building and get behind? I know coming here with New Jersey, San Jose and Florida, I know if you let them get a lead on you, get the building (going) and fans on you, it’s a tough building to come back in. We wanted to get a quick start.”
It was certainly more satisfying than their loss to the Bruins. In that game, Martin Jones allowed six goals, matching a season high, including Charlie McAvoy‘s OT winner. Jones stopped all 26 shots he faced Thursday to earn just his second shutout of the season.
“He was our best player tonight,” said DeBoer.
The Sharks’ trip east will take them next to Columbus, Detroit and a rematch with Boston. They improved to 8-1-1 in their last 10 and are now just a point behind the Flames for the Pacific lead.
• The Penguins’ 12 penalties for 49 minutes were a season-high. The previous high was 24 in their 5-4 loss to the Lightning on Feb. 9.
• How important were special teams? At even strength the game was almost even as the Sharks held a slim 51-49 Corsi For advantage, according to naturalstattrick.com. Add in all situations, and that becomes a 56-44 advantage.
• Cullen played in his 1,495th game, tying Phil Housley for third all-time by an American-born player.
• Crosby saw his six-game points streak, which matched a season-high, come to an end.
• Hornqvist has now gone 15 games without a goal, establishing a new career low.
• Olli Maatta, defenseman, has a separated left shoulder and is expected to miss a month. He’s on IR.
Sullivan’s lines/pairings for this game:
• And for DeBoer’s Sharks:
The Penguins will practice Friday at 4 p.m. at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia in advance of Saturday night’s Stadium Series game against the Flyers. Matt Sunday and I will cover.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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