Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Penguins can't maintain survival mode

Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, 10:41 p.m.
Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins on the bench during the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on October 10, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Penguins 2-1 (Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images).

No need to make it seem as though all the signs are troubling for the Penguins. They're 4-4, which isn't all that bad considering they've scored all of 13 goals.

Also, at least they shouldn't lack for motivation the next couple of nights. They'd better not, anyway.

Alex the GR8 and Disco Dan will be motivated. Not just to win, either.

Alex Ovechkin and Dan Bylsma will be motivated to march the troubled (if not lifeless) Penguins into a state of disarray. So for the Penguins, the next two nights are less about wins and points and more about showing some signs of life against opponents led by an arch-nemesis and their former coach.

The NHL season might be young, but it's not too early for the NHL's most star-studded team to start scaring somebody other than prospective buyers.

On the ice, with the exception of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins appear to be a hot mess.

Coach Mike Johnston's puck-possession system has become one of dumping, chasing and calling for his future Hall-of-Fame centers to play 200 feet. As if anybody buys tickets (let alone the team) to watch Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin skate deep into the defensive zone every shift.

The Penguins are 3-4 when Crosby hasn't recorded a point. They might be holding it together during a rare scoring funk from their best player.

But hasn't Crosby's production decline under Johnston (no points in 37 of 85 regular-season games) proven the funk to be a regression?

The Penguins have scored more than two goals once. They could be learning to play tight, low-scoring games that are common come playoff time.

But haven't they played enough of those the last six times they've failed in the playoffs?

These Penguins weren't built to win tight, low-scoring games with Crosby being coached to channel Jonathan Toews. These Penguins are co-owned by Mario Lemieux and captained by Crosby, two all-timers who rate second and fifth, respectively, in points-per-game.

Scoring. It's what the Penguins are supposed to do. It's how the Penguins are supposed to win. But it's become what the Penguins don't do. It's become why the Penguins don't win.

It's been that way for more than a couple of weeks, too. Just like joyless, along with troubled and lifeless, have been adjectives applied accurately to the Penguins for more than a couple of weeks.

Let's not pretend the last couple of weeks haven't looked like the last couple of months from Johnston's first season.

Pick some trouble, any trouble. The Penguins still haven't come from behind in the third period. They've gone from near 40 percent to under 10 percent on the power play since December.

In-division struggles would be the trouble to address first. No time like the present, either.

The Penguins are at Washington on Wednesday night. The Capitals represent their first crack at a Metro foe since Metro foes finished last season with 21 wins in 30 games against the Penguins. That record doesn't count the four wins in five playoff games by the Metro champ New York Rangers.

The Penguins can survive losing to the Capitals on Wednesday night.

They can't survive simply surviving much longer, and maybe not the rest of this week.

That's how the Penguins look right now, like they're trying to survive. It's not that Fleury's brilliance kept high-end opponents (Dallas, Montreal and Nashville) from Blitzkrieging the Penguins in their losses. It's that he needed to stop 116 of 121 shots against middling-to-weak opponents (Arizona, Ottawa, Florida and Toronto) to allow the Penguins to win those games.

I could be wrong, but the guess here is GM Jim Rutherford didn't assemble this group simply to survive.

Not in October.

Used to be the Capitals and Ovechkin — the actual Best Player of His Generation — would light the fire for the Crosby/Malkin-led Penguins. Should still be that way, especially with former Penguins' conscience Brooks Orpik (and Matt Niskanen) fully part of Team Ovi.

What will it say about the Penguins if the Capitals can't get them going Wednesday night? What will it say if the next night, in Bylsma's return to Consol Energy Center with the Buffalo Sabres, the Penguins still show signs of being a troubled, lifeless and joyless hockey club?

It will say there aren't signs. There's trouble.

Big trouble.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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