Without Stars, Penguins' Offense Lacks Inspiration

After a rash of injuries, the flaws in the Penguins' tried-and-true system have become obvious.

Puck reaches the blue line. Penguins dump it into the zone. Gain possession. Cycle. Shoot from the perimeter.

Puck reaches the blue line. Penguins dump it into the zone. Gain Possession. Cycle. Shoot from the perimeter.

Puck reaches the blue line. Penguins dump it into the zone. Gain Possession. Cycle. Shoot from the perimeter.

Rinse. Repeat. Watching the Penguins offense in recent weeks has had all of the excitement and suspense of a Bob Ross painting tutorial, and without the beautifully crafted final product. You know the lakes are coming. The mountains will have some snow. The trees will be happy. And the Penguins will willfully surrender possession of the puck at the blueline in order to establish a forecheck.

Grinders like Matt Cooke and Mike Rupp love this type of hockey and thrive in an environment that encourages it. Unable to win a battle of skill? Forget it! Grind the puck away from your opponent, toss a shot on net from anywhere and assault the goaltender in hopes of stumbling upon a rebound.

After all, it's easier to skate with the puck off of your stick. When it's on the stick? Get it off as soon as possible, whether it be on net or into the corner of the opponent's end.

Ugly goals are still goals, right?

But can't we stumble upon a few beautiful goals? Tape-to-tape passes? Sublime finishes? Maybe even a give-and-go for old time's sake? You know, the types of things that draw people to hockey?

If you haven't been watching games recently, proof of the Penguins' offensive malaise can be readily found in the shot charts from those contests. Here's a look at a few:

-P- 3-2 loss at Toronto on March 2 (shots were 29-20 Penguins)

-P- 4-1 loss at Carolina on February 25 (shots were 34-21 Penguins)

-P- 3-2 OT loss vs. San Jose on February 23 (shots were 38-26 Sharks)

What stands out to the casual observer are the shot counts in each these three games. The Penguins did, in fact, out-shoot their opponents in two of the three contests. However, they only managed to score two goals or fewer in each. Why?

The Penguins weren't, and still aren't, putting very good shots on goal. Everything is on the outside, and chances from the slot, which are to a goal scorer what the sweet spot on a baseball bat is to a home-run hitter, have been few and far between.

Eastern Conference rivals, like Washington, have grown accustomed to the Penguins' style of play and have been able to develop simple game plans to counter it. Let the Penguins shoot from wherever, but clear the front of the net and protect the goalie. The Capitals have been very successful at this, controlling the Penguins' attack as though it were coming from an ill-tempered toddler. But no matter how familiar the Capitals became with the Penguins' system, the threat of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin breaking a play open or Kris Letang swooping in from high was a constant worry.

Now? With many of the Pens' heavy hitters on the shelf, there's little natural offense. An attack that once provoked excitement has gradually turned games into a grind. The fun has gone away.

Watching prodigal son Alex Kovalev return to the Penguins and operate in the club's current patchwork incarnation has truly been a sight to behold. For the first time in years, the talented Russian stands out amongst his peers. In a good way.

Think back to his goal against James Reimer and the Maple Leafs last weekend. Ben Lovejoy commandeers a loose puck and passes it across to Kovalev, who takes control of it it atop the faceoff circle. Kovalev glides forward. There is time. There is space. He takes every little bit of it.

When you actually count, Kovalev only has the puck on his stick for maybe two seconds before taking his shot. But he makes those two seconds last an eternity.

Moments like these have been all too rare. But, it's hard to really send much criticism for this in Dan Bylsma's direction. In a result-driven profession, he has done his job admirably. He and Ray Shero appear to operate under a very similar ethos and, under it, the Penguins are a perennial Eastern Conference powerhouse. Even with a depleted roster, Bylsma's boys have managed to hold onto their playoff position and the home-ice advantage that comes with it.

Mostly, this is an altruistic cry for a bit of style and variation to the Penguins' offensive game plan masquerading as a warning call. At one point this year, it was humorous looking over the Penguins' nightly lines and giggling with a friend over how many grinders and yeoman-like players found their way onto a successful roster. 

As the season has drawn on, the style, or lack thereof, has become grating. In the playoffs, an inability to switch gears can be fatal.

Earlier in the season, I posited that the Penguins were a team that Herb Brooks would have enjoyed watching. They played fast, scored goals by the bushel and appeared to employ a similar "hybrid style" to the one that Brooks espoused, an explosive mix of creativity and endurance.

I was wrong. For better or worse, the Penguins play more of a traditional Canadian, grind-'em-out style of hockey. It's just that, with the talent on the roster, the style is much more exciting and effective than on a mediocre team. When injuries hit, though, it's just plain uninspiring.

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