March 27, 2023
The Athletic

Yohe’s 10 observations: Are we seeing the beginning of the penguins’ end?

BUFFALO, NY — Ron Hextall quietly exited the KeyBank Center Wednesday, his team mired in chaos. An arena staffer shouted, “See you next month, Ron,” referring to the penguins’ next trip to Buffalo on December 9th.

One can only wonder where the Hextall’s Penguins will be in the table by then. Maybe they righted the ship. Maybe.

Or maybe this is the beginning of the end. The Penguins lost their sixth consecutive Wednesday 6-3. They’ve had multiple goals in three of those games. They are the oldest team in the NHL. You are a sales machine. They don’t listen to their head coach.

Put simply, they are a disaster.

So what now?

When the dressing room opened to the media, only three players remained to speak about the team’s plight. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel sat with their arms crossed and welcomed questions.

Crosby is the captain, but it’s Malkin who articulates the penguins, often without apology. And so, after another embarrassing and potentially damaging setback, he did it again.

“It’s not easy right now,” Malkin said in a hushed tone. “It’s a difficult situation. It’s time to deal with this team. It’s tough. When you’re lost, you need to support each other, help each other. It’s time to build the team. We lost those games in a row. Why not win the next six games in a row?”

Well, there are many reasons for that. The penguins look slow, they look soft, and they look completely uninterested in playing any respectable brand of hockey. To make matters worse, it’s primarily the highest-paid players who make the biggest mistakes.

Despite this, Malkin continued.

“We have to build a good team,” he said. “For a while we score two or three goals. In the third period we just stopped playing. We have to control the puck throughout the game.”

The Penguins actually led 2-0 mid-game and played quite well. They played boring hockey, which is a step in the direction Mike Sullivan wants. Sales were minimal. Things went smoothly. Then they conceded six goals in the last 21 minutes of the game.

“We’ve changed,” Malkin said. “We stopped controlling the puck. We give them ice cream. We give them the puck. It doesn’t matter what the score is. We have to play the same game.”

The Penguins are now 4-5-2 and bottom of the Eastern Conference table.

Everything about their game – the play of their stars, bottom six, blue line, goalies and their overall decision making – is a cause for major concern.

“Everyone’s certainly looking at us, the leaders,” Malkin said. “I can play better. We can play better. We don’t play perfect. I had a few turnovers in this game. Play smart. play right Try to be a leader. Difficult situation. Everyone will be looking at Sid, me, Jake and Rusty (Bryan Rust). long season. We have to build this team. Difficult. Clever. To support one another.”

Ten post-game observations

• The Penguins’ biggest problem is that their best players make the most absurd mistakes.

After they went 2-0 up, Malkin took a penalty in the attacking zone, became a turnover machine and inexplicably passed a long-range shot after Crosby made a perfect save during a two-for-one pass. If Malkin scores there, I guess the game will be different. A shame because Malkin was the best player of the game in the first half, setting up Jason Zucker’s goal and dominating almost every shift. His poor play later in the game was hardly limited to Malkin.

Crosby was oddly quiet all night, but it was his turnover in the third period that led to more Buffalo momentum and Guentzel’s penalty. Of course, on the previous shift, Guentzel barked at the officers for a whole shift. He then took the ice while still smoking and took a wicked penalty.

Then there’s Kris Letang. He’s a minus-11 in his last six games.

Letang played a stunning pass to Guentzel for the goal that gave the Penguins a 3-1 lead eight seconds into the period.

But he still makes plenty of mistakes, refusing to shoot when he had an open look with four minutes remaining in the third period and the Penguins were a goal behind.

The stars need to start playing like stars. It’s not that they don’t produce offense. They are. But their entire game is abominable right now. All of them. The power play again gave up several odd-man rushes. At this point it is more than embarrassing.

• The Penguins were a goal behind and were forced to let their keeper go late in the third game.

What happened next was a horrific display by Malkin and Letang.

The penguins spend a lot of money to keep Malkin and Letang close. So what the heck was up with that effort?

It’s unacceptable. Letang was absolutely burned by Zemgus Girgensons due to an icing injury. He took it for granted and was burned. Then Malkin and Letang refused to use their legs.

• I think the penguins are in shock.

I’ve covered this team for a long time and I’ve never seen it like this. Nobody knows what to say. It’s only six games and ten days, and yet it feels so much longer.

The Penguins relaxed after the first few games of the season as they won easily. It was too easy for them. Bad habits form easily with this group. It has always been like this.

• Brian Dumoulin and Jeff Petry looked terrible against the Sabers. This becomes a nocturnal event.

I have a lot of respect for Dumoulin and his achievements over the years, but he looks battered.

Petry was an absolute non-factor in the offensive zone. Of more concern was his defense work. Petry looks slow and old at the moment. It’s a big problem. Fast players eat him alive.

• Casey DeSmith needs to get a lot better. I realize he doesn’t play behind a good defensive team, but he was in a different zip code on two Buffalo goals.

DeSmith hasn’t played badly this season, but you’re allowed to make a big save. He’s not reading any plays at the moment.

• Kasperi Kapanen didn’t do anything particularly offensive in this game. You would have to have the puck for that.

That’s three goals in 50 games for Kapanen last season. Three. (Credit to the Penguins radio show for this number.)

The decision to even give him a deal in the summer, let alone a two-year deal, was amazing then and still is today. What a lost hockey player he is.

• Sullivan hates losing more than anyone I know.

It was harrowing to see him speaking to Buffalo fans late in the third period.

You can feel Sullivan’s frustration with this team growing every day. He’s angry and considering the way his team is playing I don’t blame him.

• I wouldn’t expect a big penguin trade any time soon.

Who will they trade with? Who would they part with that another team would covet?

I don’t see it happening right now. The penguins just need to start playing better. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But there is no cheat code from this one.

• It wasn’t all bad for the penguins.

I really liked Malkin’s play in the first period. Why can’t he always play like this? Sugar has done many good things. Josh Archibald scored his third goal in 11 games and Ryan Poehling did some good things. Brock McGinn was pretty good for a second night in a row. I liked a lot of what I saw of PO Joseph.

• So where do the penguins go from here?

There are some changes I would suggest. Letang needs a new defense partner for the time being. Dumoulin can’t do it. I would also bring Rust back into Malkin’s line and put Rickard Rakell into Crosby’s line.

But a line change will not make everything better.

The Penguins are a soft, arrogant and lazy team in my opinion right now. You’re not too old to win. At least not physically. But they play like a team that is very happy with their performances.

And hey, these achievements are special. But these current penguins aren’t nearly as special as they seem to think.

It starts with their best players. They wanted the band back together. You have it. You got paid. They got everything they could have asked for and then some. And they couldn’t even bother to beat an icing breach.

The band stinks right now and have never felt so vulnerable.

(Photo of Sidney Crosby screaming off the bench during Wednesday’s third period: Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press)

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