The Pittsburgh Penguins aren't in a free-fall yet ... but they appear to be well on their way. Startling as it was, Wednesday's 7-4 defeat at the hands of the Boston Bruins was a microcosm for the Penguins season: flashes of brilliance sandwiched by spells of madness and undisciplined play.
The real issue is that the lackluster moments are beginning to overwhelm the bright, and frustration is starting to rear its ugly head, with players essentially calling one another out in the media. The names are missing, but the targets are fairly obvious. Observe Brooks Orpik's most recent post-game comments:
"Which one do you want to talk about?" he said of four third-period goals that were scored within about 13 minutes. "Take your pick, and I'll tell you.
"It's not that (other teams) are doing anything. I mean, everything they get, we give them. It's just (our) guys got to be accountable. Part of the problem is we're not playing to the situation. I mean, why are defensemen playing like forwards when we've got a 4-2 lead — this is the problem to me.
"We've got enough good forwards here. We don't need our defensemen playing like forwards when we're up 4-2."
The most recent loss shows this clearly. Up 4-2 after two periods and playing phenomenal hockey, the Penguins' collapse began. Absolutely peppering Tim Thomas' net with shots, having put 34 on target by the end of the second period, the Penguins were playing "the game" that head coach Dan Bylsma frequently talks about - getting to loose pucks first (as Bruins head coach Claude Julien freely admitted), controlling the puck possession battle, and out-shooting your opponent.
If you follow those three Commandments in the Bible of Bylsma, thou shalt not lose.
Funny, then, that the Penguins managed to lose. And not only lose, but lose embarrassingly. It was the sixth loss for the Penguins in their last eight games and third in their previous four. It was, once again, because of poor goaltending. It was, once again, because of poor defensive coverage from many of the forwards. And it was, once again, because of a defense that didn't adjust to game scenarios or play fundamentally sound hockey.
Observe the Bruins' fifth goal (scroll ahead to about 2:07):
The main problem here is Alex Goligoski's decision to make an aggressive pinch in the offensive zone, essentially trying to keep the puck deep:
1). The score is 4-4 with about 7:30 left in regulation. Your team is reeling because you surrendered a two-goal lead in a matter of seconds in the third period and Brent Johnson, who has been sharp in net for most of the year, is clearly not at his best. This is a time to limit chances against, not to press in vain, as though you're trailing. As Orpik implied, this isn't a situation to go kamikaze.
Now, I'm not saying that pinching or playing aggressively on the blue line is never the correct play, but ...
2). When you decide to make a pinch near the blue line, especially late in a tied game, you need to be aggressive. As Paul Steigerwald correctly opined, Goligoski was a little "indecisive" on the play. A pinch in that situation is a quick reaction. You need to know you are going to get to the puck first and go all out and make sure you are there first. If you aren't able to reach it first, you must ...
3). Make sure to take out the opposing player. When all else fails, play the body so that, even if the puck gets by you, the player doesn't. Shawn Thornton isn't exactly an offensive dynamo, but he has a lot of room to beat you with. If he gets to the puck first, all that's necessary is a simple chip and there's an entire sheet of ice open to maraud. That's all it took and suddenly the Bruins had a two-on-one opportunity.
Compounding matters is Ben Lovejoy playing the two-on-one incredibly conservatively. By playing extremely deep and selling out to stop the pass, Lovejoy gives Thornton room to roam. What was a two-on-one became a slow building breakaway and Thornton had time to slow up, adjust his angle, pick an open spot and, as he said, "stuff it in there."
These aren't just mistakes due to a poorly constructed system or a lack of cohesion but basic, fundamental errors coming from a team that is acting either desperate or clueless. The Penguins may not have the mettle of a Stanley Cup contender this season, but they clearly have the talent to be a playoff team, and a dangerous one at that. For any of that to occur, however, the Penguins will need to actually make the playoffs. With many more showings similar to what we've seen over the last couple weeks, desperation may become a reality.