I’m not sure why everyone is so upset about the Penguins most recent loss. It was a 4-1 defeat to New Jersey at home Thursday night. They barely avoided a third straight shutout defeat. It was their fourth loss in a row. And the players held a closed door meeting afterwards.
But it was actually a good night. After all, nobody else got hurt! By recent standards, that’s a major victory.
Of late, getting through a game unscathed has been rare for Pittsburgh. Over the past four weeks, the Penguins have lost Tyler Kennedy, Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, and Brooks Orpik.
Throw in Max Talbot (who has yet to play this year due to off season shoulder surgery) and that’s 1/3 of their regular skating roster from the playoffs last year.
Compound those injuries with the off-season departures of Petr Sykora, Rob Scuderi, Hal Gill, and Mathieu Garon and you are left with only half of the roster which suited up on opening night of the playoffs versus Philadelphia.
Very few teams handle an instant 50% loss of a championship roster very well. The 1998 Florida Marlins come to mind.
Luckily, the Penguins got off to a torrid start. At the time of this posting, the Pens had 24 points. That was good for third most in the Eastern Conference. They were also in second place behind the Devils in the Atlantic.
“After a few losses and few guys going down, we are just trying to focus on our own game. That’s the main thing. We want to get back on the right track here,” said team captain Sidney Crosby, “We’re not focused on the standings. Yeah, we notice it a little bit. But right now it’s more of a focus on trying to get things going in the right direction again.”
Yet the recent stretch of losing seems to have worn on this tattered club. After being shutout twice in a row, the Penguins had some good jump in their step against Jersey to begin the game on Thursday night.
A Ruslan Fedotenko goal put them up 1-0. But a few near misses later, the Penguins felt themselves clinging to a lead against Martin Brodeur and company. And there was a tangible sense in the building that Pittsburgh may have to win this game 1-0 if they were going to win at all.
After all, a team that’s lost 43% of its goal scoring from last spring doesn’t usually generate a lot of momentum off of its own offense. Sure enough, Pittsburgh never scored again and New Jersey netted four goals in a row to walk away with a second straight win at Mellon Arena this year. Afterwards, Coach Dan Bylsma admitted that his team was feeling the frustration.
“When we got down, later on, I think you saw a couple of guys looking down at their shoelaces. We needed to get our heads up and start executing,” said Bylsma.
Clearly, the injuries are more than just an excuse for the Penguins losing streak. They are an explanation. And a damned good one. It should be good enough in both fan and media circles. But it can’t be in the locker-room. Fedotenko seemed to grasp that after the loss Thursday. “It’s…whatever… excuses, excuses. We just need to play better.”
He’s right. Even Crosby has struggled mightily of late. His assist on Fedotenko’s goal was Crosby’s lone point in six games. It’s the worst offensive stretch of his five year NHL career.
“I’m just trying to focus on being my best. That’s all I can do,” said Crosby Thursday, “That’s more productive than trying to do everything myself. It never seems to work that work when you try to do that. At the end of the day hockey is still a team game.”
That’s true. But a lot of the INDIVIDUALS on the team need to elevate their own play to help the TEAM while 1/3 of the club is hurt.
That means Crosby and Fedotenko….and perhaps even more so Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin, and especially Jordan Staal. All five of those guys have picked a lousy time to go into individual scoring funks.
The goaltending could’ve been better too from Marc-Andre Fleury during Pittsburgh’s losses in San Jose and Los Angeles. But he played well enough to win in Boston Tuesday, and get at least a point Thursday.
But when goals are being scored because pucks are bouncing off of Ben Lovejoy and Derek Engelland, it’s hard to blame Fleury very much. Those two deserve to be in the minors right now. But with Mark Eaton remaining as the only healthy, regular player on the blue line, what else can one expect Bylsma and Ray Shero to do to fill the voids?
The normal roster should be back and healthy by mid December (that sound you hear in the background is a lot of wood being knocked on). Between now and then though, the Penguins have to muster a little bit better play despite their injured roster.
Otherwise a second straight good start to the year may be wasted by Christmas time. And another overwhelming second half run in February and March might be needed to properly position a second straight Stanley Cup Penguin victory.