PITTSBURGH — As exciting as it would be for fans and for the sport of hockey in general, it’s probably not really possible to win every game in the NHL by a 7-6 margin.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, bless their hearts, still seem intent on trying to do just that. That at least seems to be the case through the first two games of the 2018-19 season, and head coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t really seem thrilled with the approach.
After managing to outscore the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in their season opener on Thursday, everything fell apart for them on Saturday night in an ugly 5-1 loss to a scrappy Montreal Canadiens team that not only out-worked them from the drop of the puck, but outplayed them in pretty much all phases of the game. Their biggest problems defensively were the same ones that plagued them on Thursday — puck management, not being smart with the chances they were taking, and just not having enough attention to defense.
While the offense was able to bail them out in the opener, they had no such luck on Saturday.
“We’re a team right now that just wants to score instead of just playing the game the right way and playing on both sides of the puck,” Sullivan said in his post-game press conference following Saturday’s defeat. “We aren’t even close to where we need to be. That’s what I learned from this game today.”
“Until we learn how to play defense and become harder to play against we won’t control a lot of outcomes.”
He went on to say that even though he isn’t going to overreact to the first two games of the season, he is not happy with the team’s process, and that at this point in the season they are trying to preach process over results.
The process is quite obviously not yet there.
Through the first two games they have now given up 11 goals and seemingly countless prime scoring chances. If there is a silver lining to be had after that start defensively it’s that they actually gave up 15 goals through their first two games last season and still managed to come back from that still be okay.
So there’s that.
The concern, though, is that this is probably never going to be a great defensive team as it’s currently constructed. Outside of Kris Letang it’s not an overly impressive group on paper, and if Letang doens’t play like superstar, Norris Trophy level Kris Letang it’s not really a defense that is going to impact a lot of games. They are what they are, and that is an incredibly talented team that is not only going to want to play a fast-paced, run-and-gun style, but one that probably has to play that style.
The key is going to be finding the balance between aggressive, and completely reckless. So far, they have been reckless. Not to mention careless.
Following their season-opening, defense optional win over the Capitals, Sullivan talked about preaching puck management to the team, and that it is in their team DNA to instinctively try to make plays. He reinforced that point again on Saturday.
“We play an aggressive style, but it has to be a calculated style,” Sullivan said. “It’s not about throwing caution to the wind.”
And then there is starting goalie Matt Murray.
Even though he is a two-time Stanley Cup champion and is now playing in his fourth season in the league he still feels like somewhat of a mystery because we’ve seen him be great on the biggest stage on more than one occasion, and we’ve also see him be rather ordinary. He battled through a bad year in 2017-18 and is not off to a great start this season with an .830 save percentage through his first two starts. It would be nonsensical to place all of the blame on him for all of those numbers (especially on Saturday, where he was kind of left out on an island on the first four goals before giving up a clunker of a wrap-around goal to Charlie Hudon in the third period) but he is still the last line of defense behind what is probably an average defense.
“Matt’s game is in the same place where our team is,” Sullivan said on Saturday when asked to assess his goalie’s play. “We all have to be better.”
Murray, never lacking in confidence, at least seemed to think Saturday’s game was a step in the right direction for him.
“I can’t control the scoreboard. I can only control what I’m doing,” said Murray. “I honestly felt really good out there today. I was in the right position. Like I said, a couple times, they made some good quick plays and I just have to come up with a save.”
“It’s tough when you’re giving up this many goals, for sure. It sucks. But again, from my point of view, I take the scoreboard out of it and try to see it objectively. And how I felt, I felt like I got better today. So that’s what’s important.”
Maybe he was. But even though it’s just two games it’s pretty obvious both he and the team in front of him have a long way to go before they get to where they want — and need — to be.