Penguins playing to level of competition in season’s 1st weeks

November 9, 2018

Six games is deep enough into a hockey season for some patterns to develop, and an obvious one jumps off the page for the Pittsburgh Penguins results so far.

Their three wins are over Toronto, Washington and Vegas. The Leafs, off to a hot start, have been penciled in by some as the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference. The Capitals and Golden Knights are the defending Stanley Cup finalists.

Their three losses came at the hands of Montreal twice and Vancouver once. The Canadiens and Canucks are the type of teams that, despite relatively strong starts, probably will have to scratch and claw all season to make the playoffs.

Is this a flattering depiction of the Penguins, proving they have the mettle to win the biggest games on their schedule?

Is this a black mark on their record, proof they don’t bring the necessary focus to the rink each and every game night?

Captain Sidney Crosby isn’t sure what to think.

First, he offered a caveat. He noted some of the wins (over Toronto and Washington) and some of the losses (one of the Montreal games and to Vancouver) were one-goal games in the third period that could have gone either way. If they had, the narrative wouldn’t stick.

Then, he admitted he’d probably like to see the Penguins nip the trend in the bud as soon as they can.

“This early in the year, you should be up for everybody, but for whatever reason, it’s worked out that way,” Crosby said. “I think this time of year, you need to have that urgency, that desperation level. It takes time to get those habits.”

Playing up -- and down -- to the level of competition is a new development for the Penguins.

Last season, for instance, they were 21-18-2 against playoff teams and 26-11-4 against teams that missed the playoffs. They were 9-0-0 against the bottom three teams in the Eastern Conference (Montreal, Ottawa and Buffalo) and 5-8-0 against the top four teams (Washington, Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto).

It’s also not a trend that bothers coach Mike Sullivan much.

He believes a victory over a strong opponent -- his team’s 3-0 win at Toronto on Thursday being the prime example -- isn’t a sign the Penguins are taking only some games seriously. He looks at it as a model the team can follow in the future against any foe.

“I think it was a good blueprint for our guys,” Sullivan said. “It was real sound evidence that if we play the game the right way, we’re a competitive team. We’ve shown ourselves we can be harder to play against. I thought we did that in Toronto.

“We didn’t give them much room. We were on top of their skill guys. We were on the right side of the puck a lot of the night, and we still have the skill to create offense off that defense. I think it’s a good formula for success. I think that type of game provides great evidence for us to point toward, so hopefully our players can buy into playing that game more consistently.”

It’s worth wondering which category the Penguins’ next opponent, the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night, falls into.

On one hand, they’re off to an average 3-3-0 start after missing the playoffs last season. On the other hand, they’re captained by Connor McDavid, arguably the most dangerous scorer in the world.

“He’s done an amazing job since he’s got in the league,” Crosby said. “He’s off to another great start. I think every night, there’s always those matchups you look at, but he’s always a challenge to play against. You’ve got to make sure you’re ready to go.”

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