TAMPA, Fla. — With all due respect to all 82 games’ worth of fun all through the NHL winter, the regular season still doesn’t amount to a whit next to what follows.
Same applies to the outcomes.
So take this, please, in the appropriate context, but the Penguins have won four of their past six games, including rollicking results over the Bruins, Flyers and Capitals … and candidly, they haven’t been anywhere near their best. Not in any of them. Nowhere near what they’d been before.
It’s been equally evident to the eye — particularly in embarrassingly lopsided third periods against the latter two — as it has via advanced analytics: The Penguins’ five-on-five play, generally the most important indicator of a team’s overall performance, has been the NHL’s second-worst over these past half-dozen games, as gauged by a pathetic 42.86 Corsi For percentage. Broken down, they’ve been outscored by 13-9, outshot by 154-111, and given up 48 high-danger scoring chances while generating 37.
The only team in the league a with a lower Corsi For percentage in that span?
Yep, the Red Wings.
Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray saved the collective bacon in the past two games and others, and that’s always welcome, but it’s a lousy formula for success. Jarry made 12 saves on high-danger chances against Philadelphia, Murray 10 in Washington. And this behind a team that, for the full season, still ranks fourth-best in preventing such chances.
Fortunately, the solution, at least as I see it, is clear-cut in scope: Play at the far end.
This isn’t just about defending well. It’s about attacking with the same vigor and sustained efficiency. It’s about gaining the blue line, pushing deep, cycling smartly, crowding the crease before shooting, then retrieving the puck with the same passion. Like a full roster of Bryan Rust, if you will.
I asked Mike Sullivan here if the five-on-five’s got another gear to reach.
“I think we do,” he replied. “You know, I think we’ve had our moments when we’ve played extremely well. I think we can do a better job controlling momentum. When we throughout the course of games when teams push. We’ve talked about that with the group over the last couple of days.”
Taking a breath and smiling slightly, he added, “But you know, I think this group is capable of great things. They’re a terrific group of players. I think they play well as a team. They play hard for one another. And it’s the team game that makes us. As I say to the guys all the time, when we play together, we’re a lot harder to play against. I do think we’re capable of more we’re going to continue to push this group to, to try to get to another level.”
Evgeni Malkin, for his part, insists it’s still there.
“We’re playing like a tight group, and we’re playing 60 minutes,” he said. “In the third period in Washington, people probably say they played better. But they needed to score two goals, and we played better in the D-zone. It was like a playoff game.”
That’s fair, but when the evidence runs to the current extreme, it’s not lying. The forward push has been lost, to a degree. And that’s understandable. As Kris Letang told me in Winnipeg way back in October, “This is a demanding way to play.” He spoke it not as a complaint but with pride, and it’s still the best summation of this Sullivan system I’ve heard.
It’s tough. It’s taxing.
It’s also the only way to play. For this team, anyway.
Not to be that guy, but the Capitals have a better, deeper roster than the Penguins minus Jake Guentzel. And the Lightning, the opponent here tonight at Amalie Arena, are that much better, deeper than the Capitals. That matters. Barring upsets, those two teams and the Bruins are the ones the Penguins will need to beat in April and May, and all are currently better.
They’ll remain that way, too, unless both of the following occur:
1. Jim Rutherford needs to replace a significant percentage of Guentzel’s elite ability to sustain an attack. I doubt seriously he’ll land some 40-goal finisher — and I’m not sure I want that since it’d surely cost a first-round pick — but it’s got to be, at a minimum, someone who helps in this one regard. That player isn’t Dominik Kahun, isn’t any of the younger kids, isn’t anyone internally.
2. Resume playing the right way.
That’s on everyone. It’s fallen off these past few games, regardless of personnel. And if anyone thought the Flyers and Capitals had begun to expose that, wait till they see how the Bolts will blow it to smithereens.
• The NHL doesn’t have a team better than the one based here. And these twin terrors are just the tip of it:
If the visitors don’t spend the evening circling Andrei Vasilevskiy, those numbers up there will rise exponentially. With company.
• There’s no reason for Juuso Riikola to sit in favor of Chad Ruhwedel, and not just because it forces either Ruhwedel or Justin Schultz, both righties, to play on his wrong side. Fact is, Riikola was more than solid in Schultz’s absence, and his overall five-on-five work through the 28 games he’s played has been second among the team’s defensemen only to Letang’s, though it’s worth emphasizing that Jacques Martin tries to keep him from starting shifts on defensive-zone faceoffs.
Bottom line: He’s been good, and he’s only getting better. Sitting him feels like preferring the veteran, but that tiebreaker really shouldn’t apply here.
“It’s not the ideal scenario,” Sullivan conceded here yesterday. “But under the circumstances, we feel that these are the best six defensemen, that we have in the lineup.”
• Doesn’t matter who starts in goal. Not tonight. Not Saturday in Sunrise. Not until Game 1 of the playoffs. Sullivan’s blessed with two options both playing at or near his best. He’s got everything to gain, including managing a busy schedule ahead, from simply rotating them. So, Jarry vs. Lightning, Murray vs. Panthers, etc.
• Which isn’t to suggest they’re having matching seasons. They aren’t, as Taylor Haase breaks down today.
• It’s got to be uplifting for Guentzel, Brian Dumoulin and all the injured players to be on this trip. The team hasn’t announced this, but they’ll have a beach day in Fort Lauderdale when they get to the other side of the state, and having everyone around is exactly what a class hockey management would do.
• I have no idea which ‘media’ is being referenced here, but if it’s Pittsburgh media, this statement is miles off the mark:
“Phil may not have been the media’s favorite, but I can tell you the staff, we all got a real kick out of Phil.” – @Penguins VP, Media Relations Jennifer Bullano Ridgley on Phil Kessel.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) February 5, 2020
I don’t ever speak for anyone but myself, but if anyone in the Pittsburgh media ever had any issue with Phil Kessel, it’d be news to me. And it definitely didn’t apply to me. I had a blast with the man. Never a bad experience. Never a bad thought.
The hard irony of the statement above is that Kessel was often rough on the Penguins’ media relations staff, as witnessed — and reported — on multiple occasions by multiple outlets.
• Kevin Colbert’s one-year extension qualifies as news inasmuch as it hadn’t existed until yesterday, but that’s about it. He was never leaving the Steelers this soon and, when the day comes that he does, it’ll be to retire to his backyard barbecue. He’s a lifer.
Also, in spite of his ordinary-Joe persona, he’s as driven as they come. He’s not about to walk out on a team that he and others rightly see as a real contender if Ben Roethlisberger’s back to full health. No one’s better equipped to address the remaining needs, and no one’s better connected to the head coach to grasp those needs.
It’s a good development nonetheless. Obviously. Imagine the alternative.
• The Steelers’ defense already is better than any we saw through the NFL playoffs, right through the Super Bowl. And that’s with all due respect to Nick Bosa and the 49ers, but they don’t have a Minkah Fitzpatrick or a T.J. Watt, and the Steelers have their Bosa — albeit older — in Cam Heyward.
• Where’s it written in stone that Javon Hargrave can’t be kept?
No, really, what’s so expensive that needs to be added to the offense?
Bud Dupree will cost a mint, but that’s largely covered through Antonio Brown’s departure. And I get that the Steelers could use a reliable running back and tight end. But the latter would come with Vance McDonald being cut, which brings savings, and the former who’s most likely to be a second-round draft pick who’ll make rookie minimum.
Don’t risk it with this defense. Find a way. Hargrave’s legit.
• Hard not to be happy for the Chiefs, for Andy Reid, and really, for one of the most passionate, vocal and identifiable fan bases in the NFL. Unless you’ve been at Arrowhead, you won’t fully appreciate that. For those people to remain that hardy over a 50-year drought, that’s what fandom is all about. Congrats to one and all.
— Chad Finn (@GlobeChadFinn) February 5, 2020
• Wait, the Red Sox dumped one of Major League Baseball’s elite talents because they wouldn’t/couldn’t pay him?
And Bostonians are aghast at this, calling for new ownership?
And the Dodgers and their endless billions continue to brazenly boast of their entitlement as only they can?
Why, it’s almost as if there’s something spectacularly wrong with the game’s economics that we’re even taking about this sort of stuff. You know, rather than just all teams having an equal chance through the salary cap as they do in every other North American professional sport.
• For the billionth time, to everyone everywhere who cites a ‘salary floor:’ There’s no such thing as a floor without a cap, no such thing as a cap without a floor, no such thing as either without expanded revenue sharing.
There’s never a need to qualify wanting a cap ‘so long as there’s a floor,’ as I read and hear too often. One can’t exist without the other.
• Good on Ben Cherington for making more changes to the Pirates’ development staff than we’d realized until the full list was released yesterday. But good on Cherington, too, for not feeling the need to throw people out just because they were Neal Huntington’s. As I’d written many times over the years, the Pirates also had many terrific people all through their system. Most of the trouble was atop baseball ops.
They’ve all been fired, if you haven’t heard.
• I hadn’t realized until the past couple weeks, based on info I’ve gotten, the extent of the damage done by Frank Connelly alone. Saving this for a Friday Insider soon. Suffice it to say for now that he didn’t exactly stay in his lane. (No DUI pun intended.)
• The degree to which offseason activity influences people’s predictions for the coming season is insane.
Remember the Browns winning the Super Bowl?
Yeah, me, neither.
The Pirates have unquestionably had a dispiriting offseason, barely doing a thing beyond trading Starling Marte for prospects. I respect any resentment on that front. People lost patience forever ago, and rightly so.
But this nonsense about losing 100-plus games and other equally dire forecasts … I mean, did everyone forget this same group’s performance through the All-Star break a year ago?
Look, I’m not being naive here. I didn’t see 2020 as some leap-into-contention opportunity. But I’m nowhere near seeing a disaster, either.
• Center field’s got to be addressed, though. Can’t be weak there. No excuse for Cherington, certainly not financially, to let this be. This is one move that must be made with a 2020 focus.
• Tough loss for Pitt last night at Notre Dame — the Irish shot 10 for 27 beyond the arc, including a 7 for 13 first-half effort — but Justin Champagnie’s ascent continues unabated: 20 more points, plus 11 rebounds and a steal. He’s now averaging 11.8 points per game and, more striking, doing it all.
And this, too: Next time you’re at the Pete, as I was over the weekend, keep a specific eye on how he grasps the ball. He’s got mega-sized hands, and he’s able to swallow up rebounds and passes alike, even when it’s with a single hand.
Kid’s a freshman. They’re all young, actually, and only improving. This whole season’s represented a nice stride forward for the program.
• I’m running out of superlatives for how Jeff Capel carries himself. He’s confident, magnetic, authoritative and authentic. Rare blend.
• Dave Molinari and I are headed to the rink here today. I’ll take the rest of the Penguins’ Florida trip, then return across Alligator Alley for the opening of spring training. Genuinely looking forward to that, too.