Penguins Uncertain About More Than Just Their Goalie

The Penguins’ inability to simplify their game of late has complicated things considerably.

Leave it to the Penguins to screw up a potentially intriguing goaltender-controversy-in-the-making.

Suddenly, Mike Sullivan’s team has even greater concerns.

At the outset of this week, Sullivan had seemingly been courting speculation if not controversy as to the identity of his go-to goalie in the postseason.

It had long been assumed that would be Matt Murray, even after Marc-Andre Fleury wasn’t traded by the NHL’s March 1 deadline. But some uneven efforts by Murray and a significant resurgence by Fleury ever since seemingly revisited the possibility that the goaltending rotation might yet be rearranged prior to the playoffs.

Sullivan was asked about that specifically on Sunday night following a 6-2 clunker against Philadelphia during which Murray’s performance and that of the Penguins hadn’t measured up.

“Sure,” was Sullivan’s response. “Performance is always the dictator.”

As if to emphasize the point, Sullivan started Fleury on Wednesday night against Chicago.

If Murray was rock-solid as the guy come playoff time, that wouldn’t have happened.

If Murray was entrenched in the net, he’d have been sent back out there after two days off to author a bounce-back game against a high-octane, high-caliber team.

Instead, Fleury was given a chance to make a high-profile argument that the job should be his again after all.

The problem was the Penguins wouldn’t let him.

Fleury was greeted by breakaways, three-on-ones, uncontested rockets from the slot … and that was all in the opening 20 minutes.

It was 4-0 Blackhawks after one period of play and 5-1 Chicago by night’s end.

And by then the questions gnawing at the Penguins involved why they had been unable to bounce back from that 6-2 debacle against Philadelphia as the Penguins seemingly always have.

“You go through challenging parts of a season,” Sullivan opined after the first four-game losing streak in his tenure since his first four games on the job.  “For lots of reasons, for obvious reasons and other reasons.”

Added veteran Matt Cullen, “I think we all understand these are pretty extenuating circumstances right now.”

With Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, Carl Hagelin, Ron Hainsey, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley all still out of the lineup against Chicago, the circumstances were about as extenuating as they can get.

But while that can explain, to an extent, the Penguins’ inability to beat the Blackhawks, it’s not enough to forgive getting smoked by the Blackhawks almost from the opening drop of the puck.

Particularly as the playoffs loom ever closer.

Injuries and the 16-games-in-31-March-days stretch of schedule that mercifully ends on Friday night at Madison Square Garden have clearly caught up to the Penguins.

But poor puck management, breakdowns in defensive-zone coverage, the regular surrendering of high-quality chances against, being beaten down low and being beaten back up the ice have also resulted from an individual and collective lack of detail.

And that’s been as responsible for the Penguins’ sudden loss of equilibrium as who hasn’t been in their lineup.

“We have to make sure we understand as an individual what our respective games are and we’ve got to play with some simplicity and we have to compete extremely hard,” Sullivan emphasized. “For me, based on my experience of going through some of the challenges that this league will present, when we do face the bits of adversity, simplifying is always part of the solution.”

The Penguins’ inability to simplify their game of late has complicated things considerably. 

The message hasn’t changed.

“That’s what we talk about with our group daily,” Sullivan maintained.

But suddenly, the reception or the comprehension has become garbled.

It’ll take more than the returns of Malkin, Letang, Maatta and Daley to clear that up.

And if it isn’t cleaned up sooner rather than later, it won’t matter much in the long run who ends up in the postseason net. 

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section