The Pittsburgh Penguins had a heck of an offseason. They managed to land right winger Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs, a huge deal that seemed like it could propel the Penguins back into the league’s elite.
After years of disappointing playoff performances and slow regression, it seemed as if the Penguins had pried their championship window back open again. With Kessel revitalizing an offense that already had its fair share of superstars, Penguins fans reasoned, Pittsburgh could be one of the very best teams in the NHL.
My, how long ago that seems. To the bitter disappointment of the Pittsburgh faithful, the Penguins started the year 0-3. They’ve lost to underwhelming competition like the Dallas Stars and – the horror! – the Phoenix Coyotes. Sidney Crosby was held without a shot in his first two games, the first such two-game streak for him since 2010.
Through their first three games, the Penguins have scored just 3 goals, their lowest total in the first three games of any season since 2003-2004 – which was before they even drafted Sidney Crosby. They’ve currently jumped to 3-3, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still troubled. What’s going on?
Diagnosing the Penguins’ Woes
The Neutral Zone Doesn’t Seem Too Neutral
The Penguins defense has been poor through the first three games, and a lot of that has to do with how quickly the Penguins’ opponents have been able to move through the neutral zone. The Penguins’ opponents have consistently been able to control the puck cleanly through the neutral zone, crossing the Penguins’ defensive blue line with relative ease.
Meanwhile, the Penguins players can’t replicate their opponents’ success. They seem comparatively incapable of safely navigating the neutral zone, often losing the puck before ever reaching the opponent’s third of the ice.
Lousy Special Teams Play
The Penguins’ power play should be better now that they have another right-handed shooter (Kessel). But the Penguins just can’t seem to put it together on the power play: they’re a dismal 0 for 9 with the man advantage. They haven’t been great at the penalty kill, either (they’ve killed 8 of 11 power plays). It’s remarkable to see so many stars on the ice at once, yet watch them perform so poorly. Which brings us to our next section.
Poor Play From the Stars
It seems almost too easy to lay the blame at the feet of guys like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but the bottom line is that the team’s top players are the ones who need to lead the charge. That means not being held without a shot in consecutive games (Sidney Crosby). It means setting up more goals for your teammates, taking more shots, and stepping up on the power play (see above). Neither Crosby nor Malkin has a goal so far this year. They have just one point (an assist by Malkin) between them. That’s not acceptable three games into the season.
Hope for the Future
Look, it’s only three games into the season (at the time of this writing, the Penguins are preparing for a game against the Ottawa Senators). It’s too early to completely panic. That said, there are some very real problems here, and they go deeper than coaching: you’ll notice we didn’t include head coach Mike Johnston up there in the list of issues. This team needs help in nearly every area.
If the stars can pick it up and improve, particularly on special teams, then the Pens have a chance this year. Their defensive woes shouldn’t last forever – they were actually quite good on defense last year under Johnston. But the Penguins need to move fast if they’re going to right the ship, because every game they lose takes them further away from their postseason goals.