For years, the Achilles heel of the Pittsburgh Penguins was their discipline. It was so easy to get under the skin of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, teams would do it with regularity in the postseason, and it would throw the Penguins off their game.
Coach Mike Sullivan corrected that weakness, and it’s a major reason why they were able to lift the Stanley Cup last June.
Early in 2016-17, the Penguins have been impressive at times, even without their captain who is still out with a concussion, but Pittsburgh is making far too many trips to the penalty box.
Granted, opponents aren’t baiting the Penguins into penalties like they used to do in April and May of years past. Pittsburgh skaters are simply not taking control of their sticks, and the stick infractions for this team in the first four games have gone through the roof.
Over the course of the last two games, the Penguins have committed 14 total penalties, seven in both contests this week. In the last three games, the Penguins have faced a 5-on-3 in each game, and twice the opponent has scored.
Veteran Chris Kunitz had a particularly bad night Monday against the Avalanche. He led the team with three hits, but he also committed three penalties — hooking, roughing and high-sticking. Kunitz has a team-high 18 hits through the first four games, which is extremely encouraging since he’s now 37, but he must play his physical game within the rules and regulations of the NHL. Otherwise, he will be a liability to a team still finding its way on the penalty kill.
There were so many penalties called at the start of the third period against Montreal, it was hard not to laugh. The two teams combined for five penalties within the first 2:27 of the period, three of which were against Pittsburgh. For a couple minutes, it looked like overtime because the two teams were playing 3-on-3.
Not much went right for the Penguins against the Canadiens on Tuesday night, including the power play. Pittsburgh went 0-for-8 on the man advantage, however, that’s somewhat misleading because several of their power plays were cut short due to the Penguins committing a second foul that evened things.
No team wants to be shorthanded that much, and as previously mentioned, the Penguins penalty kill is finding its way early this season due to the loss of defenseman Ben Lovejoy.
He’s really the only notable loss from the Stanley Cup roster, and if Pittsburgh had to lose anybody, honestly, he is likely the least of their worries. However, in 16 games without Lovejoy last season (missed due to injury) the Penguins’ penalty kill percentage sat at just 73.5 percent. With him in the lineup the other 66 games, Pittsburgh killed 87.0 percent of its penalties.
There is no guarantee that Lovejoy would have made a difference, especially in the 5-on-3 situations that even the best shorthanded units struggle to defend, but veteran Trevor Daley and 25-year-old Brian Dumoulin have been asked to play a bigger shorthanded role. Getting thrown into the fire by having to kill seven penalties per game isn’t exactly how the team envisions them adjusting to their new jobs.
In such a small sample size, it will be tough to tell how successful they’ll ultimately be. Excluding the two-man advantage opportunities, Pittsburgh has killed 13-of-15 penalties (86.7 percent), but including the 5-on-3 situations, the Penguins are 14-for-18 while shorthanded (77.7 percent).
The good news for Pittsburgh is it’s early in the season, and this can be corrected. Coach Sullivan was furious after Tuesday’s game and unlike previous Penguins coaches, he is very blunt when upset.
Evgeni Malkin, who is taking on a leadership role without Crosby on the ice, took accountability for the team’s lack of discipline too while also complimenting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who made some stellar saves, but still allowed four into the net at Montreal.
Up next is the third-best statistical power play from last season, the San Jose Sharks. Pittsburgh contained the San Jose man advantage in the Stanley Cup Final, but the Penguins need the parade to the penalty box to stop as soon as possible.