There were disturbing takeaways from the Penguins’ 3-2 home loss to the New York Rangers on Tuesday.
• The Penguins are built on speed, but the Rangers are clearly faster. That was evident Tuesday and in each of the Penguins’ three games vs. the Rangers. The Rangers’ forecheck overwhelmed. The Rangers are what the Penguins used to be and imagine they still are.
• The Penguins had just 24 shots and have averaged only 24 shots in the three contests against the Rangers. Igor Shesterkin may be the NHL’s best goalie, but the Penguins have yet to make him prove it. They have never put him under siege.
• Coach Mike Sullivan needs to rethink and rearrange his lineup. Evan Rodrigues has played so bad for so long that he doesn’t deserve a jersey, let alone a spot in the top six. He handles the puck like he’s trying to kill a snake with a tree branch. He’s got two goals in his last 35 games, and one is an empty-netter. He makes Kasperi Kapanen look like Cam Neely. How can Rodrigues be out there at all, let alone on Sidney Crosby’s line?
• The Penguins need constant, 60-minute intensity. They rode the momentum to score 11 goals against non-playoff Detroit on Sunday but never really got the motor going until the later stages of Tuesday’s game.
• Evgeni Malkin dominated against Detroit but hurt more than he helped against the Rangers. Nobody cares about a hat trick against Detroit. Malkin made a plethora of mistakes Tuesday.
• The Penguins committed 12 turnovers, the Rangers just two.
The Penguins and Rangers are likely to meet in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. If that series started today, I’d pick the Rangers. The Rangers are young, hungry and on the rise. The Penguins are old, fading and pick their spots.
The Penguins got blasted by the Rangers, 5-1, in Manhattan this past Friday because it was the Penguins’ third game in four nights and the Rangers hadn’t played since the prior Tuesday.
But there was no excuse for what happened on Tuesday. It was a one-goal loss, but the result never seemed in doubt.
Sullivan has some thinking to do between now and the presumed postseason series against the Rangers.
Since relying on new blood in the Penguins’ Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and ’17, Sullivan has become enamored with choosing his lineup by rote: If you’ve been playing, you keep playing. Veteran respect figures in too mightily.
But that’s got the Penguins zero playoff series victories since 2018.
Rodrigues has to be scratched. Nobody could possibly do worse. He’s not producing, utterly lacks confidence and provides zero physicality.
Danton Heinen should be looking over his shoulder. He had three giveaways Tuesday and, like Rodrigues, has been too often miscast in a top-six role.
Brian Boyle should stay in the lineup. (He probably would, anyway. Veteran respect.) He’s got nine goals in 54 games, adds size and is a good penalty-killer.
There aren’t many options on defense. That’s too bad because Brian Dumoulin could use a sit. He’s struggled mightily for much of the season.
But the Penguins also have problems that have nothing to do with personnel.
After the Rangers took a 3-1 lead 66 seconds into the third period, they managed the lead. They got pucks deep and played smart. Not conservatively but sensibly.
The Penguins just won’t do that. The Penguins stubbornly cling to their style no matter what.
Coincidentally, the Rangers employ the same style. They’re just more cognizant of score and situation.
I’ve often said that it’s difficult to out-Penguin the Penguins. But the Rangers did that, have done it before and are very likely to do it again.
If you’re the sort who believes that rearranging the lines might help, here goes:
• Bryan Rust should go back to right wing with Crosby and Jake Guentzel. That’s the NHL’s best line.
• When Jason Zucker returns from injury, he goes on Malkin’s left wing and Rickard Rakell flips over to that line’s right wing. I hate moving Rakell out of his preferred position of left wing, but he hasn’t topped 18 goals since 2018. He’s not like moving Jarome Iginla from right wing to left wing for the first time ever as he’s on his way to 625 career goals . Rakell at right wing makes the lines fit better.
• Leave Kapanen on Jeff Carter’s right wing. Carter seems to be metaphorically holding Kapanen’s hand and spoon-feeding him confidence. Kapanen is 25 and shouldn’t need that, but anything that gets Kapanen above the level of suck should be embraced. (Carter played very well Tuesday, BTW.)
Will those changes beat the Rangers in a playoff series? Probably not.
But kudos to Crosby, a beacon of consistency on a Penguins’ team that’s aging out.
Crosby’s goal Tuesday clinched a point-per-game season. That’s 17 straight for Crosby. As in, all of his seasons. Only Wayne Gretzky (19) has more.
More than anyone, Crosby keeps the Penguins afloat.
But he might not be enough.
On the bright side, Tuesday was St. Fredericton’s Day. Have you ever seen the Flyers win the Cup?