Thoughts: Game 58 – Pens powerplay loses the game in 2-1 final to Columbus

By: Meesh Shanmugam

Here’s a link to the Postgame Thoughts archive, in case you want to catch up on what you may have missed.

Blue Jackets 2  Pens 1

Record: 32-17-9

Goals
Malkin (22) from Martin, Despres

Click here to read the goal assessments

Gm 58 - Goals

Penalties
Perron (high-sticking) – Careless (hooks up Johansen and gets his stick blade up to Johansen’s face for a minor penalty)
Adams (interference) – Unnecessary (checks Boll in the back on the crease and knocks him over after the puck is out of the area for an interference call)
Downie (roughing) – Inconsequential (gets into a shoving match with Boll by the benches and they each receive a minor)
Crosby (fighting) – Inconsequential (gets tied up with Dubinsky in the corner and they drop the gloves for matching fighting majors)
Bennett (slashing) – Unnecessary (slashes down on Dubinsky’s stick to keep him from a loose puck and breaks his stick in half for a penalty)
Lapierre (high-sticking) – Careless (tries to lift the stick of Connauton and hits him in the face for a minor penalty)

Notable Players

Forwards

Gm 58 - Forwards

Evgeni Malkin – Malkin wasn’t necessarily anything special against Columbus (was any skater?), but he at least had the biggest impact among the forwards. He had two takeaways and a forced turnover as he led the team with five shots on net and scored the only goal for the Penguins. That goal was a rather uncharacteristic Malkin goal as he stormed the crease and threw a rebound past McElhinney, but it got the job done. Not all of Malkin’s impact was on the positive side though. He had a giveaway in the offensive zone and a whopping three lost pucks in the defensive zone, all in the first period. The second line really struggled to exit the defensive zone at times and it was often because Malkin wasn’t moving the puck quickly enough. Geno has still hit beast mode at times in recent games, but not with the consistency he had pre-groin injury.

Sidney Crosby – Crosby had an interesting game to say the least. His puck management was all over the place with a pass interception, two forced turnovers, two broken-up plays, three giveaways, a lost puck, and a failed clearing attempt. Add in his fight with Dubinsky, and it was quite the chaotic game for Crosby. The fight did give the Penguins an interesting test – a powerplay without Crosby. Nothing changed in terms of passing, so Crosby isn’t the only issue with that unit. He ended up with two shots on the night, still passed up on some great shooting opportunities, and ended up with a mediocre game overall. Expect his mediocre games to get magnified even further as everyone else continues to not score as well.

If this doesn't fire up your team, what will? (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

If this doesn’t fire up your team, what will? (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

Beau Bennett – Just a couple of games removed from a performance that made everyone think that Bennett turned a corner, Beau basically did everything wrong that he could. A far cry from the nine-shot afternoon, Bennett had 0 shots on net, two failed clears in the defensive zone, and took a penalty skating back to the defensive zone for slashing a stick in half. He was dropped to the 4th line at one point in the game, though it didn’t last for more than a few shifts as he and Downie switched back again. If Bennett really wants to stand out right now, he needs to focus on his creativity in getting the puck to the net; it just simply wasn’t there for him at all against Columbus. This performance probably won’t help his appearance to the coaching staff.

Defensemen/Goalies

Gm 58 - Defense

Marc-Andre Fleury – The only player who I thought earned good marks (and it surpassed that by light years) was Fleury. He kept the Penguins alive all night, especially in a very sloppy first period that was essentially a Columbus onslaught at times. His first impressive save of the night came on a point shot that was redirected in the slot by Harnell. It was a perfect redirection and it would have been an acceptable goal against, but Fleury managed to adjust his glove to make a very tough save look easy. He continued on with a 2-on-1 save on Calvert, a point blank save on Atkinson, and two broken-up passes in the first period. The rest of his night included stopping Johansen with a stand-up save 1-on-1, stopping Foligno with a right pad save as Foligno skated across the slot, and stopping Wisniewski on the PK on a one-timer chance from the left faceoff circle. As for the goals he allowed, Fleury had to deal with Hartnell alone in front on the first goal against when Pouliot did nothing to impede him, and then Fleury was knocked over by Comeau as Dubinsky scored the eventual game-winner shorthanded. There isn’t much that feels trustworthy on this team right now, but Fleury is doing way more than anyone could have expected out of him.  The save on Johansen tells you everything you need to know about Fleury’s confidence. When he’s willing to stand up to a shot like that instead of dropping into his butterfly, you know he’s in the zone.

Help. this. man. (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

Help. this. man. (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

Robert Bortuzzo – Though he hasn’t played well this year overall, Bortuzzo had one of his better games of this season against the Blue Jackets. He didn’t get involved too much, only breaking up two plays in the defensive zone and losing a puck there as well, but he was quick to get rid of the puck in all three zones. Columbus dominated Pittsburgh on the forecheck by eliminating time and space within milliseconds. Bortuzzo somehow escaped this pressure by quickly moving the puck and keeping that same mindset in the offensive zone too. I joked about how bad his fake shot looks, but it did give him several more seconds to work with in a game where the Penguins couldn’t seem to buy time. It may not have amounted to anything in the end, but good on Bortuzzo for adjusting as he saw fit.

Kris Letang – Letang had another mixed bag game, which has been the trend in most of his games over the past couple of weeks. There is clearly a dependency from the entire team to have Letang moving the puck at all times and creating plays. That dependency seems to be wearing on him and forcing him into some bad decisions that we haven’t seen this year like in years past. On the plus side, he tied for the team lead with five shots, led them with four blocks, and recorded three takeaways, a pass interception, a forced turnover, and a broken-up play. On the negative side, he had a giveaway, two lost pucks, and the glaring thing to me – two lost defensive coverages. Both occurred when he got caught going too far through the offensive zone and couldn’t get back to cover his man. Both also occurred when the game was tied at 1, so the offense wasn’t necessary. Letang has done a marvelous job of covering up for himself throughout this season, so this is the type of trend that would concern me the most about him. The offense needs to get going to begin with, but it’s also important that they figure it out before Letang starts pushing and trying to do too much.

Misc. Thoughts

Changes Over the Season – It’s a little boring to harp on the same things in these paragraphs game after game, so here’s a list of observations compared to some of the earlier thoughts posts this season. In no particular order:

  • 1) Getting shots early is no longer a consistent thing. – The Penguins are still getting the puck on net, but they don’t often seem ready to do that at the start of the game anymore. 10 shots in the first 10 minutes? It still happens from time to time, but it certainly doesn’t look like a point of emphasis anymore.
  • 2) Powerplay movement. – Not only are the Pens forcing passes on the powerplay, but they have stopped moving for the most part. Back in October, two things were apparently: there was a net front presence (next topic), and the guys away from the puck, especially on the backside boards, were constantly moving to keep the PK moving as well. The only player I have seen move like that in the past month is Pouliot, and he is usually at the middle of the blue line, so he doesn’t have open space to move to. The backside guys need to move to help the puck holder out. Crosby’s terrible passes might not be so terrible if someone moves to give him a target. (Okay, he’ll still over-pass.)
  • 3) Net front presence. – Remember early in the season when everyone was excited about how Hornqvist, Downie, and Comeau could join Kunitz as guys who could go to the front of the net? Remember when Perron joined the team and we learned that he could handle that style too? Remember when no one ever did it again? Whether it’s powerplay or even strength, guys are generally not getting rebounds around the net or even in the corners like they did early in the season. The Penguins are working the perimeter well, but the slot and crease look foreign to them again. Get the puck to the net and get to the net – that’s how a guy like Hornqvist can return to his early season form. He is never going to look good with any other style of play.
  • 4) Puck support. – Another note I made several times early in the season was that the puck support getting through the neutral zone and in the offensive zone was unbeatable. There was a constant rotation and swarm of guys moving around loose pucks and following up each other. The puck support definitely isn’t there anymore in any zone. Even if you look at the spreadsheet above for the forwards, the failed clears in the defensive zone is embarrassing. Guys just simply aren’t skating the extra step to get the job done way too frequently.
  • 5) Moving back to move forward. – Another thing the Pens did frequently early in the season was skate to the neutral zone, see no room available, and then drop the puck back to the defensive zone to get guys moving until an open lane could be found. This team doesn’t appear to be as patient anymore and seems to try to force their way through obstacles instead of finding the right openings.
Hornqvist is one of many guys that can't seem to find his sweet spot again. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Hornqvist is one of many guys who can’t seem to find his sweet spot again. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Reasons for Hope – The team we’re overanalyzing and wondering about is still the same team (minus Maatta and Ehrhoff currently) that did everything above and dominated at times this season. By the way, don’t discount the Maatta and Ehrhoff losses. The defense is playing decent, Fleury is playing phenomenal, but the ability of those two players to move the puck around the ice is sorely missed right now. That is a big reason why it is largely falling on Letang and why I personally think it’s starting to wear on him a bit. Maatta is obviously done for the season, but getting Ehrhoff back soon should help this team out more than many realize, even if he’s not putting the puck in the net on his own. The optics have been terrible – an awful powerplay, a slumping PK unit, and an offense that barely exists. Based on this roster, not a single one of those things should last. 50ish days ago, the Pens were beating the likes of Tampa Bay with Ebbett on the 2nd line. There are still 45ish days until the playoffs. A lot can happen in that time. Confidence that this team is sorely lacking can be built in that time. Roster moves can be made in that time. I’d rather see what this team is made of now than rudely find out that they don’t even know what they’re made of in the playoffs.

Next Game: 2/21 @ St. Louis, 8pm

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