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Pittsburgh Penguins seem poles apart this NHL season

The NHL franchise have failed to build around their captain Sidney Crosby, writes Rob McKenzie.
Pittsburgh Penguins' captain Sidney Crosby normally racks up a lot of points in October yet has zero so far this season. Gene Puskar / AP Photo
Pittsburgh Penguins' captain Sidney Crosby normally racks up a lot of points in October yet has zero so far this season. Gene Puskar / AP Photo

Five games into this young NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are following their habitual pattern: win a few on talent, lose a few for want of heart.

This is a team that expect to triumph as a matter of course but become flummoxed by pesky rivals who do not follow the script. When the Penguins are losing, they know they need to be better. But then they win a game or two and all is right with the world.

As early as the season’s second match, a 2-1 loss to the young and plucky Arizona Coyotes, the Pens’ lack of cohesion was evident. In an in-game interview during the first period, while the score was still 0-0, the veteran winger Patric Hornqvist said: “We just have to be way better. We have to match their work ethic. That’s the bottom line right there. They’re more hungry than us.”

It is shocking that a team of which so much is expected should be exhibiting such torpor so early in the season.

After the next game, a 3-2 loss to Montreal, Sidney Crosby, the Pens captain, was telling reporters: “If your desperation and urgency isn’t there, then there’s a problem.”

Pittsburgh won their next two games, against Ottawa and Toronto, but these were not impressive victories. The Senators were playing their second road game in two nights, while Pittsburgh were rested and at home. And Toronto are a bad team.

The fact is, Pittsburgh have been in a slow decline since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. They last made the conference final in 2013 and Boston swept them in four games. This past spring they were eliminated in the first round in five games by the New York Rangers.

In the off-season, the Penguins traded for Phil Kessel, a sniper who is probably the least fit player in the league (parody Twitter account: Fat Kessel). During his years in Toronto the sulky Kessel was dead weight on a sinking ship.

But in Pittsburgh Kessel is not the problem. Playing on a line with the great Crosby he has been dangerous even if he has only one goal to show for it.

And Crosby is not the problem either, even though he normally racks up a lot of points in October yet has zero so far. While he has been too intent on setting up Kessel for scoring opportunities, the captain remains the team’s hardest worker.

Pittsburgh’s flaws are that they press too far forward on offence, that the forwards are sometimes slow to backcheck, that the players are too often undisciplined – Evgeni Malkin jawing at a Toronto player instead of getting back on defence, on a play that led to a Leafs goal – and generally that they do not seem knitted together.

They need leadership. It is not fair to expect Crosby to provide it. He is craftsman, not commander. Hufflepuff, not Gryffindor. He is like the Tin Man – handy with a blade, and quite likeable, but not the person to be left in charge of reaching the zenith.

He cannot be blamed for that which is his nature. The blame instead lies with Pittsburgh’s management, who somehow have not recognised this weakness and have failed to stock the team with the “glue guys” it needs.

Indeed they went in the opposite direction this summer and traded away Brandon Sutter, a second-generation member of the legendary Sutter family, which sent six brothers from a farm in Viking, Alberta all the way to the NHL (the seventh stayed behind to run the farm). Sutter kills penalties and works hard. In Vancouver, he currently ranks as the Canucks’ leading scorer and is tied for their second-best plus-minus mark.

Pittsburgh will win their share of games, but this is not a team built for success in the play-offs, when the hungry tend to devour the talented.

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Published: October 20, 2015 04:00 AM

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