“I think everybody had a good summer and it’s a new season. It doesn’t matter what you did in the two years past. Everybody starts from zeroes and you have to go and do it again.”
— Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Olli Maatta.
EDMONTON — Two unhappy teams will greet puck drop at Rogers Place on Wednesday night, both searching for the game that put them at the top of bookmakers’ Stanley Cup odds lists back in September.
One club is getting blown out every fourth game, having lost games by scores of 10-1, 7-1 and 7-1 already this season. The other loses by less lopsided scores, but more often.
One team is out of sorts with a 7-5-1 record. The other is 3-6-1, perilously close to losing its season before America carves its Thanksgiving turkey.
We all know which one is which, and who has back-to-back Stanley Cups to their credit. But it’s funny how an experienced, proven Pittsburgh team can play poorly yet still collect more wins than losses, while Edmonton is facing a cruddy 3-7-1 record if it can’t come up with two points on Wednesday.
“We’re not playing right. We’re playing like it’s an easy game right now,” groused centre Evgeni Malkin. “We think we can score five or six goals, but that’s not right. We need to be better without the puck. Nobody’s giving us easy pucks right now. We need to be stronger and in our D-zone, play right.”
It was amazing to watch the Winnipeg Jets rifle five pucks past Pittsburgh goalies in the first period of their game Sunday; or when the Blackhawks scored 10 earlier this season. The Penguins looked on those occasions like they’d never played their own system before; like head coach Mike Sullivan pulled 20 guys together from an open shinny scrimmage at a local rink.
Yet, only four months ago this group of players, give or take two or three, carried the Stanley Cup around the ice at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
“Every year, especially in these early games, you try to create your identity. Ours, the past couple of years, has been our team speed,” said defenceman Brian Dumoulin. “I think right now that our best defence is our offensive zone play with the puck and us D-men getting back to pucks and breaking out quick. On the nights we haven’t had it, we’ve been spending a little too much time in our D-zone and that takes away from our team speed.”
So, there are X’s and O’s that are to blame for substandard play. And there are also mental issues. As Crosby said last week in Pittsburgh, “You’re not going to feel like you did in the second week of June, in October. It’s just not the way it works.”
You don’t get to win every night. Even the toughest head coach gets it.
That’s why coaches harp on about “structure,” and “playing the right way.” It’s the same as the goal scorer who says, “As long as I keep getting the chances, I’m not going to worry. The goals will come.”
But on at least three occasions this season the Penguins have abandoned their structure completely. You can bet that Sullivan does not chalk those games up to the eventuality of losing the odd game over an 82-game season.
“Yeah, I think you do treat it differently,” he concurred on Tuesday. “There are going to be nights over the course of an 82-game schedule where it doesn’t go your way. But I think this early in the season, our team has had a few too many of them. We give our opponents credit; we’re playing against good teams. But it’s not so much what our opponents are doing to us. It’s more what we’re doing to ourselves.”
Good players make good plays. Even the two-time Stanley Cup champs will get scored on, or give up a power-play goal on to a power play that is executing.
But the kinds of mistakes that get made over the course of three games to find oneself on the bad end of a 24-3 aggregate score?
“That’s unacceptable,” said the coach. “If we’re going to get where we want to go, we’re going to have to become a team that doesn’t beat itself. Those are games where we’ve completely taken ourselves out of the game.”
It’s early, sure. Never too early, however, to become the Penguins again.
Or last year’s Oilers, for that matter.