Penguins can blame back-to-backs, but need to learn how to cope

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Sunday night’s brutal 7-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets attached a flashing, over-sized arrow to a trend for the Pittsburgh Penguins so far this season: they’ve been awful closing out back-to-back sets.

It’s easy to explain some of that away.

Read more about a special night for Blake Wheeler and a tough start for Casey DeSmith here.

As defending champions, the Penguins have accrued more mileage than any other NHL team over the last two seasons. Those haven’t been easy runs, either, and the bumps and bruises likely stack up even more when you consider how often Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are called upon for international play.

(That wasn’t meant to twist the knife in deeper, Phil Kessel.)

The Penguins are still hanging in there with a 7-5-1 record, yet there are troubling signs from shoddy backup goaltending, a goal differential that’s now fallen to -14, and these often-lousy efforts in the second game of back-to-back sets.

Just look at how they’ve looked so far in these situations:

Not ideal.

The Penguins can’t just brush this off as a minor issue, really. Pittsburgh ties the Ottawa Senators with a league-leading 19 back-to-back sets this season. The Pens still have 15 of such sets remaining in 2017-18, with three sets coming in November, including an Oilers – Flames run to start the month.

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In a league rife with parity, every team has to reconcile with how difficult it can be to make the most in a back-to-back.

The sheer volume of the sets Pittsburgh must deal with makes it as worrisome an obstacle as the overall fatigue that comes with trying to climb that mountain again this season. This isn’t necessarily to say that back-to-backs will cost the Penguins a playoff berth, but it may hurt them from a seeding standpoint. And having to fight hard merely to qualify for the postseason could really be a grind for a Penguins group that would be much better off finding pockets of the season to rest up.

Some of this comes down to an intriguing challenge to Mike Sullivan, a head coach who’s distinguished himself in embracing the Penguins’ strengths by playing a fast, attacking style.

Can Sullivan adjust to the many back-to-back sets, maybe even resting a star or two on the first night, or limiting what Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin deal with in each contest? Also, will GM Jim Rutherford unearth a backup option that Sullivan & Co. can trust rather than placing too much of a burden on Matt Murray?

This isn’t a dire situation … yet. Still, the repeat champs at least need to consider how they want to approach these challenges. Losing 7-1 more than once is an extreme result, but going without points too often can really hurt.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.