PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan’s voice was calm as he urged patience and understanding, qualities that tend to be in short supply around the NHL when the calendar flips to March and the number of regular-season games dwindles.
They’re traits the Pittsburgh Penguins coach hasn’t had to rely on much during his four-plus years on the bench, which include back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. Yet with the Penguins mired in their longest losing streak since 2012 – a six-game skid that’s rendered their appearance at the top of the Metropolitan Division two weeks ago a mere cameo – the typically fiery Sullivan has taken a more muted approach.
”There’s no easy stretch,” Sullivan said Monday. ”That’s just the nature of the league.”
It’s a nature the Penguins have largely been immune to for years. Yet they have looked decidedly vulnerable while getting outscored 24-8 against a schedule littered with teams basically playing out the season. A winless road swing through California last week culminated with a 5-0 loss to San Jose that led captain Sidney Crosby to place the blame squarely on his shoulders.
Though Crosby – who has just one point since a 5-2 romp over Toronto on Feb. 18 pushed Pittsburgh into first place in the Metropolitan – hasn’t quite looked like himself of late, neither has the 19 other guys in the lineup on a given night. Asked if there was any one common thread for a swoon no one saw coming, Crosby shrugged.
”It’s hard to point the finger at one specific thing, but I think putting the puck in the net a little more would give us some breathing room,” he said.
Of course, for the puck to go into the net, the Penguins actually need to shoot it. It’s something one of the league’s most talented offensive teams has struggled to do lately. While on the surface Pittsburgh’s average of 33 shots per game during the losing streak looks healthy, the reality is that the Penguins have fallen into the habit of trying to make the pretty play instead of the right one.
”Sometimes the ESPN highlight reel kind of gets in your mind,” forward Jared McCann said. ”But I feel like sometimes, especially with the way things are going right now, we’ve just got to throw pucks on net. We’ve got to throw it at a goalie’s feet. We’ve got to make the easy shot, sometimes it’ll go in.”
McCann attributed Pittsburgh’s scoring issues partly to bad ”puck luck,” that inexplicable phenomenon associated with the whims of a one-inch piece of vulcanized rubber. Though the Penguins have had the lead just once at the end of their last 24 periods, McCann insists the players aren’t frustrated. There are times when they feel they’ve played well for extended stretches only to have nothing to show for it thanks to a bounce here or a bounce there.
”You’ve got to laugh at it,” McCann said. ”What are you going to do? Sit there and mope? And you’ll just dig yourself deeper and make it worse. I’m trying to stay positive with it.”
Having the NHL’s longest active playoff streak helps. Pittsburgh hasn’t missed the postseason since 2006 and despite its current funk is still in relatively good shape. The Penguins are third in the Metropolitan Division and have three games in hand over Columbus, which currently holds the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. The schedule also is division heavy over the final month, giving Pittsburgh opportunity make up lost ground.
”We have the ability to control our own destiny,” forward Bryan Rust said.
Also, the Penguins, who have been ravaged by injuries for much of the season, are close to having some familiar faces back on the ice.
Defensemen Brian Dumoulin – out since Nov. 30 with an ankle injury – and John Marino – out since Feb. 6 after taking a puck to the face – are both game-time decisions on Tuesday night when Pittsburgh hosts Ottawa. Forward Nick Bjugstad has been cleared for full contact and is close to playing for the first time since mid-November. While forward Dominik Simon is week to week with an upper-body injury and All-Star forward Jake Guentzel won’t be ready until late April at the earliest as he recovers from shoulder surgery, new arrivals Patrick Marleau, Connor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues give Pittsburgh versatility, speed and, in the 40-year-old Marleau, another veteran voice.
There’s no need to panic yet. Still, the wiggle room Pittsburgh enjoyed during its torrid play through December and January is gone. Team owner Mario Lemieux took in practice on Monday with president David Morehouse and general manager Jim Rutherford. Sullivan’s voice – unlike the tone he used while addressing the media – boomed through PPG Paints Arena as he tried to steer his club back on track.
”A team goes through points in the season where it comes a little easier than other points,” Crosby said. ”We’re facing some adversity right now. We’ve faced it all year long with different things. It’s a good test and a good challenge for us.”