From coach Dan Bylsma on down to captain Sidney Crosby and defenseman Matt Niskanen, the Pittsburgh Penguins seem to agree that Monday night’s flat 5-1 loss to Florida was merely a continuation of a stretch of so-so play, not a one-night aberration.
That’s odd to hear in a way, since the Penguins have maintained their double-digit lead in the Metropolitian Division by posting a 5-1-1 record thus far in January. In fact, the Panthers’ romp at Consol Energy Center made Pittsburgh the last NHL team to be handed a regulation loss in 2014.
But despite those good results, the Penguins clearly haven’t been on their game for at least a couple weeks, if not longer. For the season, they’re still top 10 in goals scored (sixth) and allowed (seventh) per 60 minutes, but their possession numbers have dropped significantly from the first two months of the season.
In particular, the Pens’ Fenwick Close, which measures unblocked shot attempts for and against in close games, has fallen from well above 55 percent in November to quite close to the break-even point. In other words, Pittsburgh has been getting outplayed when the game is on the line for a few weeks now.
This ExtraSkater.com chart, a rolling measure of the Penguins’ success in terms of Fenwick, illustrates that fact well:
As you can see above, the Pens’ decline in puck-possession began in December, which should be no surprise with the top four defensemen and Evgeni Malkin out of the lineup at various times during the month. Last night marked the return of James Neal and Paul Martin from injuries, so perhaps we can expect Pittsburgh’s play to improve.
The above graph only covers 5 on 5, which further explains the importance of special teams. Despite a recent power play slump, the Penguins are still tops in conversion rate (24.2 percent) and penalty killing (87.9). That type of success, along with a shooting/save percentage spike that covered much of December, tells us how Pittsburgh has stayed near a .700 winning percentage while not playing especially well.
How do the Penguins get back to their early-season form? More playing time for the returners would be nice, as would a renewed commitment to smart decisions with the puck. Pittsburgh has nine games to go before the Olympic break, which provides an ideal short-term “finish line.”
Humans respond better to results than process. Maybe a blowout loss like Monday’s can convince the Penguins that they can’t expect to keep playing as they have and maintain their standing among the NHL’s elite.