NHL fans would be hard pressed to find a bigger story than the Pittsburgh Penguins’ roll through the first month of the season.
While questions surrounded the Penguins entering this season — what would new head coach Mike Johnston do differently? What impact would general manager Jim Rutherford‘s moves make? How would Marc-Andre Fleury play? — the club answered them in its first 13 games. Pittsburgh was 10-2-1, led the NHL in power play and was fourth in penalty kill and won seven consecutive games entering a meeting with the New York Rangers.
“They’ve always been an elite, high-skill team, and that’s what I’m seeing on the ice,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said prior to Tuesday night’s game against the Penguins. “Obviously, they’re playing extremely well on both ends of the rink. It’ll be a real tough test for us tonight.”
Yet, it was what happened in that game against the Rangers that leaves cause for concern in the Steel City.
The Penguins looked like flightless birds Tuesday night, leaving Madison Square Garden with their tails between their legs after a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the Rangers.
It may have been only one game, but boy what a bad night — and bad opponent — to lay an egg against.
“Right from the start we were outplayed,” Penguins forward and captain Sidney Crosby said. “Whether we won however many in a row, that’s no excuse. We weren’t good enough.”
Many remember that it was the Rangers who prompted all the change in Pittsburgh, as the upstart Blueshirts turned a 3-1 playoff deficit into a seven-game series win in last spring’s Eastern Conference semifinals. Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero were subsequently fired, replaced by Johnston and Rutherford as Mario Lemieux and Penguins brass searched for the crew that could lead Pittsburgh to the summit of both the regular season and postseason for the first time since 2008-09.
For the first month those moves looked good, but Tuesday against the nemesis Rangers, Pittsburgh came crashing back to earth. Fleury was outplayed yet again by Henrik Lundqvist, as the Rangers’ stalwart netminder stopped all 33 shots against, while Fleury let in five of the 35 shots he faced and again heard derisive cheers from the 18,000 or so at The Garden.
MSG is Fleury’s veritable house of horrors, as the goaltender sports a 2.92 goals-against average and an .891 save percentage in the regular season on 33rd and 8th since 2007-08. And the netminder looked lost on Kevin Klein‘s blast from the point and Derick Brassard‘s second-period power-play goal that snapped Pittsburgh’s impressive streak of 39 straight penalties killed.
Crosby, meanwhile, finished with more penalty minutes than shots Tuesday night, and Evgeni Malkin and Pittsburgh’s band of offensive superstars failed to get uncorked for the first time this year. Nick Spaling was Pittsburgh’s most active forward and had the team’s best offensive chance — an innocuous try from a sharp angle that fooled Lundqvist but that ex-Penguin Tanner Glass pulled off the goal line with the score tied in the first period.
“I think it would’ve given us a big boost,” Johnston said of the play. “But we just didn’t have the intensity to get on those loose pucks that they had.”
What’s odd about the Penguins’ scenario is they have had postseason success historically, yet of late, they’re like the mid-2000s New York Yankees: rife with superstars and experience, yet short on execution when it matters most. Many put the onus on Crosby, and he’s broken out with 24 points in just 14 games this season.
But Bylsma never had trouble winning in November either, and he fell on the sword because of the club’s performances in May. A team of the Penguins’ caliber shouldn’t have to prove itself, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t.
Strange as it sounds, Pittsburgh’s next seven games will serve as a good barometer. The Pens meet the Islanders and Maple Leafs twice, plus the Canadiens, Bruins and Rangers again.
Win those games, and Tuesday will look like an aberration. Lose more, and we’ll all be talking about the Penguins and disappointment yet again.