|The Great Train Wreck of 1856 OR the Penguins' Weekend? Or both?|
They lost three consecutive games and were shutout twice, including a 2-0 loss at the hands of the punchless New Jersey Devils.
The Pens only mustered 1 goal in those 3 games, with that singular tally coming amid the biggest Pennsylvania train wreck since Whitemarsh in 1856.
Pittsburgh's scoring issues were exacerbated by the injuries to both Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist, but the lack of goals isn't the team's only problem.
In fact, the Penguins have three major problems leading into the final spate of regular season contests before the post-season begins:
Problem #1: a terrible power-play (and a lack of basic shooting principles)
Remember back when the Pittsburgh power-play was good? We're talking historically amazing and going to break every power-play record that a power-play ever power-played?
Hold onto that link, because that's the only thing that's left of what was the NHL's best special teams.
Despite their torrid pace to open the season, the Pens' power-play is now ranked 8th, behind such offensive juggernauts as the Arizona Coyotes and the Columbus Blue Jackets, and have netted only one goal in their last 20+ attempts.
For those of you scoring at home (and I know you are!), that power-play "streak" is of the cow pattie variety and includes multiple games where the services of both Malkin and Hornqvist were available.
What's gone wrong? If you can believe it, the Penguins' power-play is too cute and refuses to pull the trigger and just shoot the darn puck.
And, if you wish to strain incredulity even further, you could perhaps add that the Penguins aren't doing much in the way of screening the opposing netminder and aren't generating the type of rebound chances that lead to, you know, rebound goals.
|The PP is as bad as this sundae looks delicious.|
Finally, you can top off your "This PP Sucks" Sundae with a cherry called "the Pens aren't adjusting their angles before taking a shot."
If you're unfamiliar with the concept, try the following: close your fingers and have your open palm face your head from about 4 inches away. In this setup, your eyes are the shooter and your palm is the goalie.
Not so easy to see around your palm, is it?
Now, move your head just 1 inch to the left or right...and voila! This is the benefit of a shooter making a slight move to the left or right before letting his shot fly: he creates room for the puck to find the back of the net.
Perhaps predictably, the most egregious offender of just gripping-and-ripping the puck is Chris Kunitz. The man knows how to place himself into a scoring position, but instead of making just a tiny move to either side before releasing the puck, he's instead lifting his leg and pumping a harmless wrister into a waiting goalie.
Accordingly, Kunitz's scoring touch has gone as dry as a Steven Wright punchline.
Problem #2: struggles with transitions and zone entries
The Penguins play a slightly antiquated style of play in the NHL, and last night's loss to the New Jersey Devils is perhaps the best example of both WHY and HOW the Pens struggle to win against the all-mighty trap.
Pittsburgh has stockpiled skill players who weave magic when they have the puck. The trap negates their skill by clogging up the neutral zone (between the blue lines) and forcing the Penguins to try and enter the offensive zone by way of the dump (or chip) and chase.
I've written about the dump and chase earlier this season, and I highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the tactic in that article. Suffice it to say that the opposing team's plan is to take away Pittsburgh's speed through the middle of the ice while simultaneously forcing the Pens to relinquish control of the puck (the chip or dump), thus eliminating the threat of a transition goal.
|"BOOM! Score goals easily with Tough Actin' Mike Therrien."|
Goals scored via the transition game used to be the bread and butter of the Penguins, especially during the "defensive" era of Michel Therrien. The Pens would create a turnover and then fly up ice, and then the superior skill players of Pittsburgh would create a one-time scoring chance and BOOM, goal.
Dan Bylsma tried to further emphasize the transition game by having the centers always cycle through the middle of the ice and look for a breakout chip from one of the wingers along the wall.
The change in coaching to Mike Johnston was supposed to further add to the transition game by encouraging the defensemen to activate (that is, go out of their defensive posture and aggressively enter the offensive zone / scoring passing lanes), and to a certain extent, it has: Kris Letang is sure to be among the league's finalists for the Norris Trophy, and #58 may lead all NHL blue-liners in points when the season draws to a close.
But overall, the Penguins' goal scoring has declined, and Pittsburgh went from a team perennially leading the league in goals scored to 12th.
When a team goes through a drought such as what the Penguins are experiencing, it's safe to say that whatever the status quo is (and in this case, it's trying to beat the trap via dumping and chasing), it needs to change.
Not taking ANY chances with possession will help with shot suppression and goals allowed, but if your team never scores, you will never win.
Problem #3: the referees.
When Kris Letang was tripped during the final two minutes of the eventual 2-0 loss at New Jersey on Monday night, the referee prejudice against the Penguins became painfully obvious, but in an odd glimmer of hope, perhaps TOO obvious.
Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser penned this telling article about how he interprets the biased calls the Penguins have going against them this season.
Have the Penguins yapped too much to the officials about what's being whistled? Probably. Is the referee bias something that's accrued over the past few seasons? Possibly.
The fact that Kerry Fraser publicly weighed in on TSN about the referees having had enough of Pittsburgh chirping makes the spotlight a national one, and the glaring non-call on Letang was so obvious that even the odds makers in Las Vegas might have to consider altering their playoff betting lines if the Pens will be regularly fighting the zebras come April.
What can the Penguins do? For the moment, they can shut up. In fact, the current situation is a literal "Put Up & Shut Up" situation in which all Pittsburgh can do is silently watch all of the calls go against them (as was the literal case last night against the Devils) and hope that the referees independently decide that enough is enough...
...or hope that, as was the case with the trip of Letang, the bias becomes so obvious that the NHL is forced to address it.
Regardless, the Penguins have to work to overcome all three of these areas if they expect to avoid the type of spring failure that has haunted the franchise ever since the glory years of 2008 and 2009.