Last night’s loss can’t be blamed on a lack of stars. Many defeats over the past year can be chalked up to key absences. But not last night against the winless Jets who were playing without their top star.
No, last night the Penguins were simply outplayed. Pittsburgh started slow and stayed sloppy. The powerplay suffered again, going 0-3 and squandering a late chance to tie the contest.
The unit has struggled since starting 5-15. Pittsburgh has only one powerplay goal without Evgeni Malkin in the lineup and is 1-14 on the man-advantage over the last four games. The umbrella formation that worked so well in the preseason and early season has totally vanished. There is no longer a forward in the high slot facilitating puck movement. Instead, the old perimeter passing and shooting through traffic routine has returned. As a result, the 2010-11 powerplay numbers have returned.
When you don’t have stars in the lineup you cannot afford to pass up golden opportunities such as man-advantages. Pittsburgh must figure out a better powerplay formation. The best option? Reverting back to the umbrella.
There were other issues besides the powerplay.
Some Penguins have been criticized by fans unfairly. Others have been blasted for good reason.
One player who does not deserve the harsh headlines is Jordan Staal.
While the 2006 Draft pick hasn’t been brilliant, he has played his role—which is as a defensive-offenseman. He was drafted to be a shut-down center, chip in offensively when he can, and to allow the true Penguin stars to play strict offensive roles. Without those stars in the lineup Staal’s responsibility is to take on both tasks. What makes his job even tougher is that he is averaging over 20 minutes of ice time per night. His nearly 27 shifts per game is good enough for 17th most among NHL forwards.
If Staal was counted on to only be a strict defender he would be paid like Craig Adams. When you are supposed to be the fourth or fifth scoring option and suddenly you are the first though, it is hard to adapt. His offensive game has improved over the past few games though, and he is getting his teammates the puck. If his ice time were to drop, Staal offensive output may increase.
Paul Martin is a player who deserves criticism.
He is an unfocused, slow skater who is a sub-par zone defender and cannot take contact. Actually, he avoids it at all costs. Martin also makes slow decisions with the puck. His talent is not in question. It is possible that he just doesn’t understand the system, but he should be at least improving in his second year. He is a sound defender one-on-one and can create offensively, but he just hasn’t put it together yet.
Martin’s defensive partner, Zbynek Michalek, has caught a lot of criticism as well. I believe most of this is because Martin is leaving Z out to dry. There is one main difference between the two players—pressure.
Michalek double-teams and presses better than any defenseman on the Pens. He takes away time and space every change he gets. The former Yote understands how to use offsides and angles to his advantage. He certainly hasn’t been 2010-11 good, but hasn’t been as bad as many have suggested. Last night was his best game.
An example of the differences between Z and Martin came late in the second period. Winnipeg broke into the neutral zone with a 3-on-1. The Jets player who was carrying the puck lost it at the blueline for a split second. Martin, who was within striking distance, could have jumped up and taken away any passing lane which would have forced a blocked pass or bad pass. Instead, he chose to sit back and the Jets almost scored. Michalek would not have missed this opportunity.
The correct play would have been to force the issue at the blueline. If Martin would have done this, there would be only three plays for the puck carrier:
- Throw a pass into Martin’s skates.
- Throw a pass into open space behind Martin.
- Continue to carry the puck directly into Martin’s check.
None of the above options are attractive. In fact, the more likely play would have been that Martin forced an off-sides or was able to steal the puck and flip it back up the boards. At worst, the Jets player would have been able to lay the puck into open space. By this point though, Penguin backcheckers would have returned to the defensive zone and provided support.
Finally, two other players have been wrongly condemned: Steve Sullivan and Chris Kunitz.
Kunitz is not James Neal. He is not going to create on his own like Neal nor does he possess the talent that Neal does. Actually, Kunitz is closer to a Matt Cooke than Neal in terms of talent and style (that is not a insult as Cooke is extremely gifted). He has proven himself with Crosby and will be back to form when Sid returns.
Sullivan, on the other hand, has not been spectacular. But, as I have previously pointed out, the Malkin/Staal styles do not fit his game. Sullivan is a shoot first player. He has looked to distribute too often in the early season. He can be a playmaker but only if he is recognized as a goal-scorer first. When he is fed the puck in scoring position he will pot it. He may not get that opportunity until Crosby returns.
And just as a late note, Letang’s point-per-game average (1.00) puts him on pace for 14 more points than last year’s leading defenseman. No Penguin defenseman has led the team in scoring since Dick Tarnstrom in 2003-04.