Penguins are a mess after another ugly loss to Devils

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The Pittsburgh Penguins seem to be the cure for whatever is ailing the New Jersey Devils these days.

After starting the season with a four-game winning streak, the Devils have won just three of the 12 games that followed while being outscored by 20 goals (52-32). They have been, for lack of a better word, bad.

Unless they happen to be playing the Penguins as two of those three wins have not only come against their divisional rival — including Tuesday’s 4-2 decision in New Jersey — but they have also outscored them by a 9-3 margin.

That is not a good look for the Penguins. Also not a good look for the Penguins: The fact they are now just 1-5-1 in their past seven games and are showing a lot of the same potentially fatal flaws that held them back at times a year ago, specifically when it comes to the abysmal play of their third-and fourth-lines.

Some numbers to ponder: After Tuesday’s game it has now been nine games since the Penguins received an even-strength goal from their third-or fourth-line. Meaning, a line that has not been centered by Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. The last such goal came in a 9-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Oct. 25 when Matt Cullen scored his first, and only, goal of the season.

During the stretch that has followed, the team has scored only 18 total goals, with only 14 of them coming at even-strength. One of Crosby or Malkin has been on the ice for all 14 of those even-strength goals, and at least one of them has contributed (scoring or assisting) to 11 of them.

It is not just the lack of goals, either. Their third-and fourth-lines are getting crushed in every aspect of the game, whether it’s actual goals (outscored 8-0), shot attempts (less than 44 percent) or scoring chances (also less than 44 percent).

On Tuesday, Crosby had a hand in both goals recording the primary assist on both of them, including an incredible cross-ice pass to Phil Kessel on the power play, and a controversial goal that saw Crosby plow through the crease and skate into Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid, leaving a rebound right on the doorstep for Jake Guentzel to pounce on.

The Devils challenged the goal for goalie interference but the on-ice call was upheld.

General manager Jim Rutherford addressed the depth issues a week ago when he ripped into his team’s slow start and commented on how they are not getting contributions from their depth players.

[Related: Obviously unhappy GM rips Penguins’ slow start]

For a refresher:

“It’s almost like the guys come to the games and say, ‘Let’s just let the top guys do it.’ Let’s let Sid, Geno, Phil and Letang carry us. We’ll just get through the game and move on to the next game. Forget about the work ethic it takes or forget about the role they play. But when those top players aren’t getting it done, whether they’re shut down or they’re just not having a good game, that’s when we need those other guys to come in and contribute and help win games. We’re not getting it.”

That was probably the most on-point and accurate thing he said.

Over the past couple of weeks coach Mike Sullivan has tried a lot of different things to jumpstart individual players in an effort to get them going.

Bryan Rust, fresh off signing a long-term contract extension over the summer, has been off to a terribly slow start and been bumped up to the top line alongside Crosby and Dominik Simon.

Carl Hagelin, who has just three points in 16 games, has remained in the top-six alongside Malkin despite his lack of offense.

With Rust and Hagelin getting those big-minute roles, it means somebody else gets bumped down the line, and on Tuesday it was Guentzel and Phil Kessel (the two most productive wingers on the team) opening the night on the third line being centered by Riley Sheahan … who has two points in 16 games, none in his past seven, and has not scored a goal since the second game of the season.

None of it has worked.

What the Penguins really need right now is for Derick Brassard to get healthy again, and once he does, they need to stick him on the third-line (which is the role they acquired him for; not to play alongside Crosby on the top line as he had been doing prior to his injury) and hope that he starts to produce as they expected him to.

They also need to hope that somebody out of the Rust, Hagelin, Sheahan trio (which accounts for nearly $10 million in salary cap space) starts to contribute something.

Or, as the GM hinted at, maybe even a trade to bring in somebody that might help add some offense.

Whatever the solution might be, they better find it fast because they are only two points out of the bottom spot in the Eastern Conference.

Yeah, it is early (and yeah, they were in a nearly identical spot at this exact same time a year ago). But it is not so early that there should not be some concern.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.