Will Pens Find a Way to Score Consistently as Playoffs Loom?
It's an unfamiliar question to a team that rarely worries about getting the puck in the net.
They were two points away from punching their ticket to the postseason and the Penguins knew it.
They just couldn’t do much of consequence about it.
They fired 39 shots on the Red Wings’ net on Tuesday night in Detroit, counting blocked shots and misses they generated 69 attempts.
But they could only muster one goal.
That said more about what might ultimately usher the Penguins out of the playoffs than it did their ability to get there in the first place.
Qualifying remained well within the Penguins’ grasp entering Thursday night’s rematch with the Red Wings at PPG Paints Arena.
It wasn’t quite a formality but one way or another that’s where they appeared to be headed.
And yet that 4-1 loss in Detroit on Tuesday night resonated as perplexing if not downright unsettling, given the recent trend.
“I know this team can score,” head coach Mike Sullivan had insisted in the immediate aftermath. “When we play the game the right way, I know this team can score.”
The 39 shots on goal and all those attempts suggested the Penguins had played pretty well at Little Caesars Arena, as did the 26 shots they surrendered.
But it wasn’t good enough, as the final score betrayed and Sullivan maintained.
“I don’t think we had the puck enough in the offensive zone,” he said. “We were forcing plays that weren’t there. As a result, we were robbing ourselves of the opportunity of forcing them to have to expend energy defending us.”
But what about the one goal the Penguins scored on March 29 against Nashville? Or the two they managed in a shootout win on March 21 at Nashville? Or the two they mustered in a shootout loss on March 19 at Carolina? Or the one goal two nights prior against Philadelphia? Or the one the afternoon before that against St. Louis?
The Penguins have been perceived as a star-studded, high-octane, combustible bunch for so long now that scoring goals has always seemed to be the least of their concerns. Certainly, it’s always been that way in Sullivan’s tenure.
But throughout what, for the most part, has been a successful stretch run, consistent goal scoring has been a relative struggle.
Sullivan is used to preaching the need to play defense to his team, to emphasizing the virtues of generating offense through diligent and responsible play away from the puck, particularly late in the regular season or throughout the postseason when the checking gets tight, space evaporates and scoring opportunities are fewer and farther between.
He’s always stressed to his Penguins that you can’t simply score your way to a championship.
But you can’t just Selke Trophy your way to one of those, either.
At some point, you have to put the puck in the net.
Phil Kessel did that at even strength on Tuesday night in Detroit, the first time that had happened since Jan. 30.
Sidney Crosby failed to score a goal, on the power play, at even strength, into an empty net or otherwise for the 10th consecutive game.
And the goal Patric Hornqvist scored on Sunday against Carolina was his third in his last 32 games.
“You try to evaluate your game as a whole, but that’s part of it,” Crosby acknowledged between Red Wings games this week. “Part of my job is to put the puck in the net.
“I have to find a way to do that.”
At some point, your best players have to be your best players.
Perhaps getting Evgeni Malkin (he of the 12 even-strength goals in his first 66 games this season) and Kris Letang both back in the lineup over the long haul as anticipated will be the elixir.
But what if it isn’t?
That’s not a problem the Penguins have often had to contemplate on the eve of a postseason.
And it’s not one they’re sweating this season … yet.
“We just gotta limit our mistakes and find a way to execute a little better around the net,” Crosby offered.
But starting next week they’ll have to be better around the net, or else.