‘Penguins look fragile’: Amid 7-game losing streak, is it too early to panic?

‘Penguins look fragile’: Amid 7-game losing streak, is it too early to panic?

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. – Normally, the penguins wrap every practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex the same way. After stretching, the players gather in a circle around Mike Sullivan at center ice and hear a few closing remarks from their coach.

This happened as usual on Sunday afternoon. But this time, the day after another loss, something else also happened.

As a few players broke away from the group, a prominent penguin called out, “Guys, wait!”

The unmistakable voice belonged Sidney Crosbythe next words were heard only by those who were on the ice with him, and whatever was said on that sheet of ice remained on that sheet of ice.

Neither Crosby nor his teammates shared when asked, although the captain’s message appeared designed to keep things loose around a club clearly feeling the pressure of a seven-game winless streak. The night before, after a 3-2 home defeat against the Kraken that continued a troubling couple of weeks in which the Penguins have gone 0-6-1 and fallen toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, Crosby acknowledged his club was struggling.

“It’s tough, it’s tough,” Crosby said Saturday night.

He’s also apparently annoying to no one but him. The Penguins haven’t experienced such a long winless streak since 2005-06 — Crosby’s rookie season and the last time the Penguins missed the playoffs.

One thing does not necessarily dictate that something else will happen. Winning just one point in a seven-game stretch doesn’t doom the Penguins’ best 16-year postseason streak. Athletic’s latest model they still have a 62 percent chance to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs starting Monday.

A chart showing how the Penguins' playoff chances have dipped recently, but are still at 62 percent

“I agree with that,” said Mike Rupp, a former Penguins player who now works as an analyst for NHL Network. “If you look across the league, there’s a lot of really good teams that don’t look that good right now, and there’s a lot of teams that a lot of us thought weren’t doing very well doing well.

“It’s too early to overrule or crown anyone.”

Rupp is one of four network analysts who spoke for this story. The others, Rick Tocchet (TNT), Kevin Weekes (ESPN) and Craig Button (TSN), said they expected the Penguins to make the playoffs despite their struggles. However, each of these analysts also expressed concern.

Button said the Penguins “don’t have presence in their forward group” outside of the top two lines. Weekes assessed that they “play a certain brand when they’re on their game … and the Pens have been inconsistent in that brand.” Tocchet cited superstars such as Crosby and Evgeni Malkin “trying to do too much”.

Analysts had more to offer, but you get the idea.

“It’s not just a penguin thing,” Button said. “It’s a lot of little things.”

Players and coaches agree, even if they also claim, as Sullivan did Sunday after practice, that internal analytics have tracked in favor of the Penguins in terms of expected goals and goal differential over the last three parties

The eye test and stats won’t matter much if the Penguins can’t win soon. They face the capitals in Washington on Wednesday, the Maple leaves in Toronto on Friday and canadiens Saturday in Montreal.

Those Canadians handed the Penguins their first loss of the season, albeit in overtime. But this was not the defeat that started this terrible trend. That would be a waste Edmonton in the second game of a five-game road trip.

“I thought it was kind of a turning point,” Weekes said of the Penguins’ lead against the Oilers in late October. “That set them on the path to the struggles they’re in right now. I mean, come on, man — you’ve got a two-time All-Star goaltender that you’ve passed to dry in the game — you basically leaving what is like his hometown (where he played for the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL) without support.

“This is embarrassing.”

The Penguins advanced against the Oilers by a score of 3-1. Since then, they have been outscored by a 32-13 margin.

It didn’t matter if that two-time All-Star goaltender, Tristan Jarryor backup Casey DeSmith he was at the goal.

It didn’t matter which player Sullivan tried as the third back on lines centered by Crosby or Malkin.

It didn’t matter if Kris Letang or Jeff Carter was or was not in the lineup.

It didn’t matter if the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton pullers got a shot, if the superior power play unit shot, if the opposition’s power plays could or couldn’t score their shot, or even all yes Kasperi Kapanen he hadn’t missed an open shot, as he did early in Saturday night’s home loss to the Kraken.

The Penguins have lost seven in a row.

They have lost when they dominated possession. They have lost when they had multiple goal leads. They’ve lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost, and everything that’s lost has trampled them.

“We’re in one right now,” Bryan Rust he said, referring to a larger struggle.

Added Rupp, observing from afar, “The penguins look fragile.”

They’re certainly nothing like a club that gained steam through camp as the hot pick to win the East. Tocchet, his assistant coach for the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup teams, said he had the Penguins “in my top four going into the season.”

Neither he nor the other analysts agreed with these two popular suggestions on social media:

1. Management erred in bringing back an older core.

2. The penguins are finally going the way of the Blackhawks i kings – franchises that fell off a cliff after their multi-title run in the past decade.

“I would think those things if it was to the point where other teams were skating them,” Tocchet said. “If they don’t have the puck, if they’re always chasing, that’s when I’d worry about hitting that cliff.

“That’s not what’s happening.”

So what’s going on?

Tocchet lamented an “exchange of scoring opportunities” and “some sloppiness with the puck.” Weekes noted the “pervasive bad special teams” performances. Echoing each other, Button and Rupp said the Penguins’ bottom six forwards “don’t contribute enough” and not just in a scoring department.

“From what I see, Crosby comes out or Malkin comes out, and their lines do their thing, and the next group of players come out and they don’t do anything,” Button said. “They don’t make the other team feel uncomfortable. They do not have a dynamic change.

“I’ll use football terminology: your best players get field position, and the next ones lose it. So you’re in this constant battle of advancing and then retreating.”

Button said general manager Ron Hextall needs to consider making a change to improve the bottom six. Hextall, who said that Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun he still believes in his group, has cited the Penguins’ salary cap issues as an obstacle to improving the club since taking his position. Although, to his credit, Hextall worked within those cap constraints to add the likes of Carter and Rickard Rakell before the last two trade deadlines.

“A manager’s job is to look at the problems a team has and find solutions,” said Button, a former general manager. “I don’t want to hear about how difficult it is. I don’t want to hear about difficult circumstances. You find a way to find solutions to your problems; that’s my feeling about managers in all sports.”

Button emphasized that he “really likes this Penguins team.”

Rupp said the group overall “is more talented, top to bottom, than the ’16 and ’17 Cup teams.”

Weekes suggested that an improvement in the Eastern Conference will play into the Penguins’ favor to climb out of the hole they dug themselves because, unlike last season, 100 points will not be necessary to reach the playoffs. Insisting that the East “is too deep to be top-heavy” and “the Penguins’ core is too proven to count,” he also warned that Sullivan’s group is “playing with a lot of fire” if the loss continues .

“This streak shouldn’t cost them the playoffs,” Weekes said. “But then again, I’m also counting on them getting it over with soon and getting a little more fired up to run.”

What if that doesn’t happen soon, like starting this week?

“If there are five teams that we expected to be good and they’re all struggling right now, that doesn’t mean all five are going to bounce back,” Rupp said. “But probably three or four will, and I wouldn’t bet against the Pens.

“But then again, they look fragile right now. That can change quickly, though. Toronto looked very fragile, won three straight, and all of a sudden the Maple Leafs are back … apparently.

“I trust the penguins, although I don’t like what I’ve seen lately.”

(Sidney Crosby Photo: Charles LeClaire/USA Today)

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