In late December and early January, the Penguins spoke of strong performances and elusive rewards. All signs, particularly on the puck possession front, pointed to better play. But wins, particularly decisive ones, remained hard to come by.
Then the Penguins strung together six wins in seven games, and fans forgot that sometimes hockey is a cruel, quirky sport.
Let Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to the New York Rangers serve as a refresher.
As the Hockeystats.ca chart to the right shows, the Penguins built and sustained an edge in shot attempts. Two early power plays helped, but even in five-on-five action, the hosts at Consol Energy Center generated more on offense than they allowed. Score effects, which tend to give teams that trail a bump in shot attempts, took hold after the Rangers went up 2-0. But the chart reflects score-adjusted Corsi, so a considerable gap in attempts remained.
Coach Mike Sullivan and various players expressed some frustration about the disconnect between the performance and the outcome. My cohort, Jonathan Bombulie, said Kris Letang, in an honest, non-hostile way, asked him what the Penguins should’ve done better or differently other than change the goal totals.
(Here’s the direct quote. — jb)
“Other than the fact that we didn’t score goals, would you change something in the game?” Letang asked. “Tell us that we need to score goals. We did score goals lately. It’s hard. They’re a team that retreats when they get the lead. They jam the front of the net, so it’s hard to score goals. They block shots. Their goalie is an outstanding goalie. But I think for the most part, we had control of that game. We were playing well. We had the puck. We were shooting the puck. We outchanced them. We outshot them. I think it’s just a question of finishing.”
Skeptics of advanced metrics might scoff at this as a silver lining, but I’m inclined to note that the Penguins’ bottom six — i.e. the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-ups — again fared well from a puck possession standpoint. Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz, in a departure from the recent norm, finished with the worst Corsi-For Percentage among the skaters.
I realize possession does not equal points on the board, and a couple games do not comprise a sufficient sample size, but it’s impressive to see the call-ups do their part to keep the Penguins in games. Only Derrick Pouliot would qualify as a serious prospect.
Is it fair to ask Kunitz, Hornqvist and Sidney Crosby, along with the team’s other proven stars, to put the puck in the net night after night? No. Even the Baby Pens will say that. They want to score, and both Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust came close tonight.
As long as the call-ups continue to do their jobs, I suspect the Penguins will remain on an upward trajectory. This loss is not a reason to panic. Three more shorts at King Henrik and the Rangers lie ahead. If each side’s play remains the same, I anticipate the next few outcomes will prove more favorable.
Let’s wrap up with some postgame quotes:
— Phil Kessel has four goals and 10 assists in his last 17 games. In Florida the other night, Sullivan bumped Bryan Rust up to his spot with Carl Hagelin and Matt Cullen for a while. So, Sullivan on whether he wants to see more from Kessel:
“When Phil scores, we’re a better team. I don’t know if you would call the adjustment we made in Florida a demotion. It was more an adjustment to try to create a spark for our group. But obviously, we can’t rely on just one line or one guy to generate our offense night in and night out. We have to find ways to get more contributions from throughout our lineup. When we’ve been winning here for this last little while, we found that. Tonight, for the most part, I thought it was a pretty even hockey game. I thought we generated a fair amount of scoring chances. Our power play had some real high-quality chances. We don’t score. We hit a post. They score on a two-on-one. We get a two-on-one and we don’t score. It’s a fine line. For me, my initial reaction to the game is that we didn’t quite execute the way we have the last little while here, but for the most part, it was a lot closer game than the score indicated.”
— Crosby was very level-headed after his 11-game scoring streak and seven-game goal streak ended:
“It was just different things. Had some good chances that hit the post. A few got blocked. (Lundqvist) made some good saves on a couple other ones. We had some good looks. That’s what you’re trying to do is give yourself a chance to get looks like that and you try to put them in.”
— Brian Dumoulin on his bad pinch that gave the Rangers their second goal:
“That was a tough read. I obviously wish I didn’t pinch now, looking back. I saw Sid backhand it, and I thought the puck was going to come off a little bit harder and more at an angle, and it didn’t. I was already headed there, and I thought if I’m going to go, I’ve just got to try to go. Obviously I wish I didn’t do it and just backed out, lived to fight another day. That’s on me.”
— Alain Vigneault sums it up from the Rangers side:
“There’s no doubt that our goaltending was outstanding tonight. Hank made some big saves at the key times and we were able to get some timely goals. … I thought for the most part, we played their top players well. We made sure we had back pressure. We made sure we had numbers. Yes, they probably got a lot of shot attempts, but we were keeping it to the outside, and when they go on the inside, Hank made some real big saves for us.”