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Take it Easy on the Penguins; They're Slower

February 12, 2019, 9:49 AM ET [7 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
Blogger •NHL Hall of Fame writer • RSSArchiveCONTACT
As long as Sidney Crosby breathes, Stanley Cup hopes in Pittsburgh will be shatterproof. But in the home of plate glass, the window is closing, no question. The effort it is taking every game to hold it up–and even to analyze it–is increasingly exhausting.

Up, down, and all around the essential truth remain the Penguins. Barely three points to the good of eighth place, they are not where they want to be, but the standings play tricks on us all the time. Is Pittsburgh close? “It depends on when you ask and what my emotional state of mind is,” smiled Mike Sullivan on Monday morning.

Ten hours later the coach was at his most affable, never minding the 28 shots the Flyers put up in the second period; the Philadelphia goal disallowed on a hugely premature whistle; the swing–and fortunately a miss–which Evgeni Malkin took at Michael Raffl's head. In Malkin’s return from a five-game absence, Matt Murray outplayed the heretofore-sensational Carter Hart and saved the day for Pittsburgh, 4-1, shoving the Flyers eight points back.

“[Murray] was unbelievable,” said Crosby. You had better believe it, though, because that’s going to have to be the reality in the 26 remaining games and beyond, assuming there is a beyond. A team not what it was has become more reliant on its goaltending than at any time it was in the Marc-Andre Fleury era.

Inconsistency is not so much a puzzle when you are missing some pieces. Through all their ups and downs, the Penguins are at the same time hard and easy to figure, considering their age, which is cautioning, and their depth, which is concerning. In this league of great balance and no truly great team, there is a fine line between eight wins in a row and four consecutive losses in a lot more places than Pittsburgh. And skids mixed liberally with streaks welcome the Penguins inexorably back to the pack. If they have a run, it will be a lot more about getting hot than cream rising to the top.

The Penguins alternate between being dumb to write off and being just plain dumb. Malkin risked a lengthy suspension two days after a ridiculously careless turnover by Phil Kessel into the middle of the ice turned into a 12th shorthanded goal against this season for Pittsburgh, ruining a determined effort at Tampa Bay. The team doesn’t have the margin for error it once did. Welcome to a club with almost 31 members.

“You look at those [four losses], we could have won every single one of them,” said Crosby. “We need that big play.

“There’s enough motivation at this point. It’s a great time of year to be playing; there’s a lot on the line. Earlier in the season we didn’t have that urgency; now it’s got to be there.”

The Penguins’ core, and therefore their identity, hasn’t changed in the 20 months since the second of back-to-back Stanley Cups. But a whopping nine players have from this time a year ago. Starting the season as the second oldest team in the NHL, GM Jim Rutherford traded Carl Hagelin, 30, for Tanner Pearson, 26; then Derrick Brassard, 31 and Riley Sheahan, 27 for Nick Bjugstad, 26, and Jared McCann 22, making the Penguins younger but also slower. It had been team speed extending deeper than their stars that got Pittsburgh back on top after a run of early playoff exits.

Two Cups and a second-round loss to eventual champion Washington later, the Penguins step on and off the gas so often they give their fans and themselves a headache. Game to game, streak to streak, the signals they send out are for sure more mixed than the ones from Brassard that he didn’t much like it in Pittsburgh Yet the Penguins have earned enough respect for what they have done, we would write them off only with the same wariness Peter Lee took into Spectrum.

Crosby is still the best player in the league at age 31, and with Evgeni Malkin being 32, Phil Kessel 31, and Kris Letang 31, and Patric Hornqvist 32, none of these guys are at the end. But in a younger, faster league, you can certainly see it from here. We’re checking but we believe the Penguins’ last first round pick was Blaine Stoughton. Murray and Jake Guentzel are the only parts of the presumed next nucleus still headed into their prime years.

The Penguins can beat themselves up all they want for their efforts, or lack of same, on any given night. But a lot of speed – Hagelin, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Trevor Daley– has eroded away in just two years. And when you think about that second Cup coming despite the injury absence of Letang, that defense was deeper than probably ever credited. Justin Schultz, about to return from a 52-game absence, has proven less replaceable than was Letang by Ron Hainsey in a deadline deal that preceded the second championship

When he’s on, Murray is really good. So, of course, is Malkin, who was playing at about 45 miles an hour before leaving the lineup, and the slumping Kessel, who is beating himself up so badly he looks like he has gone five rounds with Georges Laraque. The power play is struggling currently but should be along soon, as will be Schultz. The window sticks sometimes, but still lifts open, only with greater effort and fewer proven support players with each passing year.
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