The Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t playing like two-time Stanley Cup champions yet this season. Can the club flip a switch eventually are or there potentially fatal problems?
It was always unlikely that the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to win a third straight Stanley Cup this season even if they were the betting favorites on the NHL futures entering 2017-18. After all, last year they became the first club in the salary-cap era to repeat. Not even those loaded Wayne Gretzky/Mark Messier Edmonton Oilers teams won three in a row. The last team to do so was the New York Islanders hoisting four straight Cups from 1980-83.
It’s still quite early in the season – many believe the NHL campaign doesn’t really begin these days until the Winter Classic – but Pittsburgh would miss the Stanley Cup playoffs if they started as of this writing. The Pens also have a negative goal differential. Just for a point of comparison, they finished the 2016-17 regular season at plus-48.
Is it too early to worry? Bovada oddsmakers are not quite as confident as Pittsburgh is down to +650 to win the Eastern Conference – behind Tampa Bay (+300), Toronto (+400) and tied with Columbus (+650) – and +1400 to win another Cup. I mean, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights have shorter odds (+1200).
A team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel should never be middle of the pack in scoring, but that’s where the Pens are despite a Top 5 ranking on the power play. The problem is that Pittsburgh ranks 29th in even-strength goals (approximately 30 fewer than league-leading Toronto) and has allowed the second-most even strength goals behind only terrible Arizona (and nearly 30 more than league-leading Philadelphia).
In addition, more than half of the Penguins’ games have been decided by one goal. Last season, only 22 of its 82 regular-season games were. Pittsburgh was an amazing 19-3. This year? It leads the NHL in one-goal losses.
Crosby isn’t playing like a Hart Trophy candidate as he’s outside the Top 15 in the league in scoring and is minus-6. He’s averaging 0.22 even-strength goals per game after 0.4 per contest last season. Malkin has dropped from 0.35 even-strength goals per game a year ago to 0.14.
Fellow forwards Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Carl Hagelin are all having down offensive seasons compared to 2016-17. No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang is a team-worst minus-13! Only a couple of players on the entire roster have a positive or even rating.
“We have to understand that every team we play is playing us like it’s a playoff game,” GM Jim Rutherford said recently, while also hinting a substantial trade could be on the horizon. “They want to beat the Stanley Cup champions. We can’t play two periods and think we’re going to win games.
Some Pens backers might point to the return of No. 1 goalie Matt Murray as one big solution. He was recently activated from injured reserve after getting hurt against the Flyers on Nov. 27 and missing five games. However, Murray’s goals-against average and save percentage are both worse than young backup Tristan Jerry’s numbers. Antti Niemi was originally to be Murray’s backup after the team lost Marc-Andre Fleury to expansion Vegas in June, but Niemi wasn’t good in three outings and was released. Jarry was called from the team’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Wednesday, December 13, 2017 5:56 PM CST