CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Seventy-seven games remain on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ schedule, so any panic produced by their sloppy, 2-3 start would seem reactionary.
Then again, it’s not really for me to say. Nor is it for social media or fans to say.
Ultimately, what matters is players and coaches’ feelings. What I’ve learned is that this week might be really important for the Penguins, even this early in the season. One bad week and a season with dreamy potential could turn late pretty early.
I don’t think the Penguins are panicking. But I think some serious concern is mounting.
Here’s what we have learned in the past 48 hours:
• Evgeni Malkin, the king of freewheeling hockey, thinks the Penguins’ recent style is “too dangerous.”
This is like Steph Curry saying the Golden State Warriors shoot too many 3-pointers.
• Coach Mike Sullivan, always measured with his words following bad losses, essentially said the Penguins didn’t play hard in St. Louis.
He’s not above ripping his team following losses. He does it a handful of times every season. I don’t recall him doing it that early in a season very often, and I don’t recall him saying his team didn’t play hard enough. It was biting criticism from a coach who was very clearly disgusted by what he saw against the Blues.
• Lars Eller, one of the league’s most respected players, was equally disgusted by the Penguins’ lack of defensive effort in St. Louis.
He meticulously broke down the Penguins’ defensive issues following the game in St. Louis, sounding like a player who had just been transferred from a farm in Nebraska to the Wild West. If Eller didn’t realize before the season that defense doesn’t come naturally to the Penguins, he understands it now.
• Kyle Dubas is living on the waiver wire these days, looking for fresh bottom-six and bottom-pairing blood at every chance.
He isn’t happy with the lower end of his NHL roster, clearly. It didn’t take him long to send Jansen Harkins to Wilkes-Barre and to recall Radim Zohorna.
• Sullivan already has benched P.O. Joseph in favor of 26-year-old rookie Ryan Shea.
We learned plenty from postgame on Saturday. It’s easy for fans and media to overreact to a loss. In fact, I even wrote following the setback in Detroit earlier in the week that the Penguins didn’t play that poorly and that losses happen over the course of a long season.
Everything changed on Saturday, though, because players and coaches were the ones reacting so passionately.
This is uncharted territory. The Penguins, even hours before their stunning loss to the Blackhawks at home last April — the one that effectively ended their historic postseason run — were laidback, explaining that they just needed to get into the postseason, that perhaps they could flip the switch and turn back time for a final run. Maybe they were relaxed. Or maybe a little delusional.
There was nothing laidback about Monday’s practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
Practice was intense. It was quiet. I didn’t notice much in the way of smiling.
In fact, I asked a couple of players to describe the team’s current mood.
“It is not good,” Marcus Pettersson said. “No one is happy.”
Taking a glance at the Penguins’ upcoming schedule probably won’t enhance the mood.
Up next for the Penguins is a home game on Tuesday against the 3-0-1 Dallas Stars. In many ways, the Stars are everything the Penguins aren’t. They have a talented young core, they’re big and they’re one of the NHL’s better two-way teams. They’ve allowed only 10 goals in four games this season. It won’t prove to be an easy test. They’re a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Only 48 hours later, the high-flying Colorado Avalanche come to PPG Paints Arena. The Avs are 5-0 and look every bit the part of world-beaters, outscoring the opposition 21-8. If the Stars are what the Penguins aren’t, the Avs are what the Penguins used to be: a fast team that skates opponents into submission. For my money, Colorado is the NHL’s best team.
The Penguins are playing a dangerous game with a 2-5 start. In the Eastern Conference, starting the season slowly is asking for trouble. Next Saturday, incidentally, the Ottawa Senators come to town, and I wouldn’t suggest sleeping on them. Much like the Detroit Red Wings, who handled the Penguins last week, the Senators are young, fast and play an abrasive style that often gives the Penguins fits.
It’s a homestand, yes, but it’s brutal. The Penguins feel especially vulnerable. If they aren’t willing, or capable, of playing a reasonable brand of two-way hockey, they’re toast. The Penguins’ great forwards are still great, but they are no longer so dominant that they can make defense optional.
“We need to be so much better,” Jake Guentzel said. “So much smarter. Gotta stop giving teams free offense, you know?”
This isn’t new. The Penguins haven’t been interested in two-way hockey for much of their existence. But the league has largely caught up in terms of talent and speed, and, unlike the Penguins, most teams are somewhat willing to play defense. To race back into the defensive zone to break up an odd-man rush. To actually show urgency on the power play when they have a chance to score.
The Penguins’ relaxed attitude has grown stale.
We’re about to find out if they got the message the Blues sent — or the message Sullivan sent a few minutes later.
When you’re watching the Dallas game, count odd-man rushes against the Penguins. That’s how you’ll know.
“It’s been a theme with us for a few years now,” Pettersson said.
The Penguins doubled down on offense this summer when they acquired Erik Karlsson. It wasn’t the wrong decision. It made sense.
But what Pettersson said is pretty damning of everyone in the organization, and he’s right. It has been a theme. Sullivan managed to correct it following the 2019 postseason, which saw the Penguins embarrassed by the Islanders. Slowly but surely, however, the Penguins’ disinterest in playing two-way hockey has returned.
Good teams take advantage of that. Dallas and Colorado are the cream of the crop.
In October, games don’t get much bigger than these. It’s time for the Penguins to wake up.
• The Penguins’ lineup figures to be the same against Dallas, at least judging by what line combinations and pairings were deployed in Monday’s practice. Bryan Rust’s inclusion on the power play was the only detectable change. He’ll be replacing the struggling Rickard Rakell on the top unit.
• The Penguins practiced for an hour — a bit longer than usual — on Monday.
(Photo: Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)