The Penguins are off to a 13-7-0 start, which amounts to 42 percent of this lockout-shortened season. They are in more-than-solid position to make the postseason, as they sit atop the Atlantic Division and are one point behind Montreal for first place in the Eastern Conference.
Even after Tuesday’s 6-4 loss to Florida, Pittsburgh is 8-3-0 while wearing the traveling whites. Even though the Panthers prevailed in the end, the Pens rallied from a 4-1 deficit to tie the game before the second period was done, showing good resilience despite a less-than-perfect effort.
Clearly, the Penguins have done a lot of great things so far. However, when a team has legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations, an enhanced level of scrutiny always rides shotgun.
With that in mind, a couple of recent trends don’t portend well for the Penguins making a long playoff run if they don’t get resolved. Both of those troublesome areas were vividly illustrated Tuesday night in south Florida.
The first of those is penalty killing. The Penguins have typically been an excellent shorthanded team under coach Dan Bylsma, but their PK unit was completely exposed in last April’s first-round playoff defeat to Philadelphia. For whatever reason, the Pens haven’t been able to return to form this year, as evidenced by a 78.8 percent kill rate that ranks them in the bottom third of the NHL.
The Panthers’ connecting on four of seven power plays Tuesday sunk the Penguins’ PK success rate further, but the problem’s not as much the four goals allowed as it is the seven chances Florida enjoyed.
The Penguins have been shorthanded 80 times this season, including 11 games in which they’ve been forced to kill four or more power plays. Even the best penalty-killing teams will eventually falter when overworked, and Pittsburgh has been short a man more often than 23 of the league’s 30 clubs. By that measure alone, discipline has been as much an issue as execution.
While fatigue may be affecting the penalty killers, the Penguins entered this season determined to avoid depleting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s energy in advance of the playoffs. Especially in a condensed season, a reliable backup netminder is important, which Pittsbugh recognized by signing longtime NHL starter Tomas Vokoun to a two-year contract last summer.
Vokoun started and finished four of the Penguins’ first nine games this season, but since then Fleury has carried much more of the load, participating in nine of the past 11 contests. Of course, Tuesday was supposed to be a night off for Fleury, but he was brought in after Vokoun allowed four goals on 22 shots.
Judging my save percentage alone, the 35-year-old Vokoun has hit a rough patch in his past four appearances. The Czech native has stopped only 85 of 101 shots during that stretch, giving him an .841 mark in February and a below-par .891 overall.
Beyond numbers, Vokoun has looked noticeably disoriented and out of position in his past two starts. Vokoun could be solely blamed for three of the Flyers’ six goals last Wednesday at Consol Energy Center, and his former team had no trouble finding open net to shoot at Tuesday.
We all remember Jakub Voracek’s bank shot that won the game for Philadelphia last week, but this gift-wrapped goal earlier in the game was a perfect example of Vokoun’s ragged play of late:
Plays like that give Bylsma a perfect excuse to employ Fleury heavily, even as he and team management know they’ll need to lean on Vokoun soon enough to keep Fleury fresh for the springtime.
Lack of discipline and shoddy goaltending combined to end the Penguins’ championship hopes last season, and even though they’re on track for another strong regular season, the seeds of another early postseason exit are being planted again.
It’s up to team leadership to ensure those seeds don’t germinate in a couple of months.