Inconsistent Penguins scrambling as stretch run looms

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Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) collides with New York Islanders defenseman Sebastian Aho (25) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Freed)

PITTSBURGH – The faces around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have changed over the years.

Coaches have come and gone. General managers, a litany of players — some of them forever etched in Pittsburgh Penguins lore, others not-so much — and owners too.

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Yet Crosby, Malkin and Letang have remained. Through heartache and triumph. M ilestones and giddy early summer parades along packed downtown streets, the Stanley Cup in tow.

They are the fulcrum around which the organization revolves, their presence in the NHL playoffs practically a given for 16 years and counting.

Yet nearly three-quarters of the way through their 17th season together, the group known simply as “The Big Three” finds itself in practically uncharted territory: scrambling to stay in the midst of a playoff chase.

The Penguins enter play on Thursday against Connor McDavid and Edmonton on the outside of the top eight in the Eastern Conference looking in.

And while there is plenty of time for Pittsburgh to right itself, the reality is the Penguins have rarely looked as beatable during the Crosby/Malkin/Letang era as they have over the past five middling and maddening months.

The latest proof came in a frustrating 4-2 loss to the New York Islanders on Monday night, a game in which the Penguins dominated play for the first 45-plus minutes only to crumble down the stretch on their way to a ninth straight loss to a Metropolitan Division rival.

The setback marked the sixth time in 14 games the Penguins lost after leading through two periods. A team long known for its ability to finish has become vulnerable to late lapses that have cost them precious points in the standings.

“I mean, it’s not ideal when you lose games and you have leads but the only way out of it is to find a way to win one and try to get some momentum from that,” Crosby said. “We can’t dwell on it.”

Mostly because there's no time.

The NHL's oldest roster finds itself facing a daunting sprint down the stretch. Pittsburgh will play its final 26 games in the span of 50 days. Not ideal for a group that save for a brilliant 14-2-2 run from Nov. 9-Dec. 15 has been ordinary at best.

While it's not the first time during the Penguins' streak of 16 straight playoff appearances that they have looked iffy as March looms, it may be the first time their options to rectify things have been so limited.

There are no young legs ready to come up from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary did in 2015-16, an arrival that coincided with a dash to the franchise's third Stanley Cup.

And there may be little in the way of reinforcements coming at the trade deadline. The players the Penguins have that are considered the most attractive to other clubs are the same players they can't succeed without, and general manager Ron Hextall has a very different mandate than his predecessor, Jim Rutherford.

Where “Trader Jim” moved the parts around Crosby, Malkin and Letang frequently in search of a mix that worked, Hextall has been far more deliberate in his approach. He's loathe — publicly anyway — to trade Pittsburgh's first-round pick in this year's draft as Pittsburgh keeps an eye toward the post-Big Three Era.

That's left Hextall in a tight spot as he attempts to fix a top-heavy team that for all of its star power is deeply flawed. The top two lines are fine. It's what happens when the 35-year-old Crosby and the 36-year-old Malkin — both of whom are averaging a point a game — aren’t on the ice that's the issue.

The third line of Jeff Carter, Kasperi Kapanen and a rotating group that has included Drew O'Connor and Brock McGinn has made little if any impact, a far cry from the vaunted “HBK” line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel that made the Penguins one of the deepest teams in the NHL during their back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016-17.

The goaltending behind starter Tristan Jarry has been spotty at best and Jarry looked rusty against the Islanders in his return from a monthlong absence because of a lower-body injury. Even a power play that features two players with more than 2,600 combined career points is decidedly average.

Still coach Mike Sullivan, who signed a contract extension last fall, remains optimistic his team is close to figuring it out. His mantra of “playing the right way” hasn't changed much from the day he was hired in December 2015.

Asked if there's concern that Sullivan's message may not be impactful as it once was, Hextall shook his head.

“I think Sully is a terrific coach,” Hextall said when he last spoke to reporters earlier this month. “I would put him up against any coach in the league and if there’s any players that are not responding to him, I would look to move those players."

Maybe, but barring something drastic, Pittsburgh will head into the final seven weeks of the season with essentially the same group that has flip-flopped between electric and erratic since October. It means the answers to what is ailing one of the league's marquee franchises will likely have to come from within.

“There’s a lot of belief in here,” Crosby said. “It hasn’t gone our way lately but this is when you get tested as a group and you’ve got to make sure you respond the right way.”

The clock is ticking.


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