When a team has been the highest-scoring in the NHL for two straight seasons, a stretch like the one the Pittsburgh Penguins are going through is borderline shocking.
After their 2-1 loss at home to the Flyers on Wednesday night, the Penguins have scored exactly one goal per game in their last three, all regulation losses. Even in today’s NHL, where time and space is at a premium and the defense always has the advantage, it’s difficult to imagine a team with recent 40-goal scorers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal – plus consistent point-producers Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Jussi Jokinen and Kris Letang – can go through such a stretch in regular-season play.
Of course, the last time the Penguins were this impotent, the Bruins were sweeping them out of last season’s Eastern Conference final. Pittsburgh scored just twice in four games then, and their current drought has borne some resemblance to last spring’s severe outage.
However, the loss to Philadelphia not only displayed where the Penguins might be going wrong, but also revealed some promising developments as well. For instance, although most of Pittsburgh’s shot attempts came from the perimeter and rebounds were quickly cleared by the Flyers, several of the chances the Pens generated were of the A-plus variety.
In the final moments of the second period alone, Crosby was denied by Philly goalie Ray Emery on a semi-breakaway and what looked to be a sure backhand goal from in tight. Those are looks No. 87 usually buries. Similarly, Neal misfired on at least two opportunities he has routinely deposited during his time in Pittsburgh. Perhaps he’s not back to his usual sniping self after missing more than a month with an abdominal injury.
It’s easy to imagine the Penguins winning that game 5-2 if it were played the same way again, and it’s tempting to write off their three-game scoring swoon as a fluke. However, they’ve averaged a mere two goals per game over their past 10, a span in which the Pens have gone 4-6-0 as their division lead has shrunk to one point.
Overall on the season, Pittsburgh is 10th in the NHL with 2.76 goals scored per 60 minutes. Their other rate stats range from good (seventh in shots, 10th in Fenwick for) to mediocre (17th in Corsi for), so it’s clear the Penguins aren’t quite where they used to be in terms of creating offense.
Some of that drop-off may be tactical, some of it may be playmakers like Beau Bennett and Neal still getting up to speed after lengthy stays on the injured reserve. Malkin’s slowed scoring pace since his 2011-12 MVP season has been well-documented, and even Crosby has taken a step back from his scintillating October.
A 10-game sample size isn’t enormous, but it is enough to say that something is amiss. Much like the Penguins addressed their defensive issues in the offseason, it’s time to figure out why a once-mighty attack has slipped close to average lately.