The Athletic

Yohe’s 10 observations: Are we seeing the beginning of the end for Penguins?

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BUFFALO, NY – Ron Hextall quietly walked out of the KeyBank Center on Wednesday, his team in chaos. An arena worker yelled, “See you next month, Ron,” referring to the Penguins’ upcoming trip to Buffalo on Dec. 9.

One can only wonder where Hextall’s penguins will be in the rankings by then. Perhaps they will have righted the ship. Maybe.

Or, maybe this is the beginning of the end. The Penguins lost their sixth straight Wednesday in a 6-3 loss. They have blown multiple goal leads in three of those games. They are the oldest team in the NHL. They are a rotating machine. They are not listening to their head coach.

In short, they are a disaster.

And now that?

When the locker room was open to the media, only three players remained to speak about the team’s situation. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel sat there, arms folded, welcoming questions.

Crosby is the captain, but it is Malkin who often articulates the penguins unapologetically. And so he did it again after yet another embarrassing and potentially damaging setback.

“It’s not easy right now,” Malkin said quietly. “It is a difficult situation. Time to deal with this team. It’s hard. When they are lost, they need to support each other, help each other. It’s time to assemble the team. We lost these games in a row. Why not win the next six games in a row?

Well, there are many reasons for that. The Penguins look slow, bland, and completely uninterested in playing a respectable style of hockey. To make matters worse, it’s mainly their highest-paid players who are making the biggest mistakes.

Still, Malkin pressed on.

“We have to build a good team,” he said. “During a period, we scored two or three goals. Third period, we just stopped playing. We need to control the puck throughout the game.”

The Penguins were actually leading 2-0 midway through the game and were playing pretty well. They were playing boring hockey, which is a step in the direction that Mike Sullivan wants. Turnovers were minimal. Things were going well. They then allowed six goals in the last 21 minutes of the game.

“We changed,” Malkin said. “We stopped controlling the puck. We give them ice. We give them the disk. It doesn’t matter what the score is. We have to play the same game.”

The Penguins are now 4-5-2 and near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

Everything about his game — his stars’ game, the last six, the blue line, goalkeeping, and his decision-making in general — is cause for serious concern.

“Everyone looks at us, the leaders, for sure,” Malkin said. “I can play better. We can play better. We are not playing perfect. I had a couple of turnovers in this game. He plays smart. Play Well. Try to be a leader. Difficult situation. Everyone will be looking at Sid, me, Jake and Rusty (Bryan Rust). Long season. We have to build this team. Hard. Intelligent. Lean on.”

Ten Post-Match Observations

• The Penguins’ biggest problem is that it’s their best players who make the most absurd mistakes.

After they took a 2-o lead, Malkin was awarded a penalty in the offensive zone, became a turnover machine and inexplicably missed an open shot after Crosby perfectly saved it on a pass during a two-on-one. . If Malkin scores there, the game will likely be different. It’s a shame because Malkin was the game’s best player in the first half, setting up Jason Zucker’s goal as he dominated nearly every at-bat. His poor play later in the game wasn’t limited to Malkin.

Crosby was eerily quiet all night, but it was his third-quarter fumble that prompted more momentum from Buffalo and Guentzel’s penalty. Of course, on the previous shift, Guentzel was barking at the officials for an entire shift. He then took to the ice while still fuming and took a bad penalty.

Then there is Kris Letang. He is -11 in his last six games.

Letang made an impressive pass to Guentzel for the goal that gave the Penguins a 3-1 lead eight seconds into the period.

But he’s still making a lot of mistakes and refused to shoot when he had an open look with four minutes left in the third period and the Penguins trailing by one goal.

Stars need to start playing like stars. It’s not that they’re not producing offense. Is it so. But his game overall is horrible right now. Each one of them. The power play yielded multiple rushes of strangers again. It’s beyond embarrassing at this point.

• The Penguins trailed by one goal and took their goalie off late in the third.

What happened next was a horrible display from Malkin and Letang.

The penguins are spending a lot of money to support Malkin and Letang. So what the hell was going on with this effort?

It is unacceptable. Letang was absolutely burned by Zemgus Girgensons in what should have been an icing offence. He took it for granted and got burned. So, Malkin and Letang refused to use their legs.

• I think the penguins are in shock.

I’ve been covering this team for a long time and I’ve never seen it like this. Nobody knows what to say. It’s only six games and a matter of 10 days, and yet it feels so much more.

The Penguins relaxed after the first few games of the season when they won easily. It was too easy for them. Bad habits form quickly with this group. It has always been like this.

• Brian Dumoulin and Jeff Petry were terrible against the Sabers. This is turning into a nightly event.

I have a lot of respect for Dumoulin and his achievements over the years, but he seems finished.

Petry hasn’t been a complete factor on the offensive end. More worrying has been his defensive work. Petry looks slow and old right now. Its a big problem. The fast players are eating him alive.

• Casey DeSmith needs to be a lot better. I realize he’s not playing behind a good defensive team, but he was in a different zip code on two Buffalo goals.

DeSmith hasn’t played poorly this season, but he is allowed to make a big save. He now himself he is not reading plays.

• Kasperi Kapanen didn’t do anything horribly offensive in this game. You’d have to have the drive for that to happen.

It is now three goals in 50 games for Kapanen since last season. Three. (Thanks to the Penguins radio broadcast for that number.)

The decision to give him any contract over the summer, let alone a two-year deal, was surprising then and remains so now. What a lost hockey player he is.

• Sullivan hates losing more than anyone I’ve ever been with.

It was shocking to see him talk to the Buffalo fans at the end of the third period.

You can feel Sullivan’s frustration with this team growing by the day. He’s furious, and given how he’s playing his team, I don’t blame him.

• I wouldn’t expect a big Penguins trade any time soon.

Who are they going to negotiate with? Who would they be willing to part with that another team would covet?

I just don’t see it happening right now. The Penguins just need to start playing better. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But there is no cheat code outside of this.

• It wasn’t all bad for the Penguins.

I really liked Malkin’s game in the first half. Why can’t he play like that all the time? Zucker did a lot of good things. Josh Archibald scored his third goal in 11 games and Ryan Poehling did some good things. Brock McGinn was pretty good for the second night in a row. I really liked what I saw from PO Joseph.

• So where do the penguins go from here?

There are some changes I would suggest. Letang needs a new defensive partner for now. Dumoulin is not making it. He would also return Rust to Malkin’s lane and put Rickard Rakell on Crosby’s lane.

But a change of line is not going to improve everything.

The Penguins, in my opinion, are a soft, arrogant, lazy team right now. They are not too old to win. Not physically, anyway. But they are playing as a team that is very happy with their achievements.

And hey, those achievements are special. But these current penguins aren’t as special as they seem to think they are.

Start with your best players. They wanted the band to get back together. They got it. They got paid. They got everything they could possibly have wanted, and then some. And they didn’t even bother to beat an icing infraction.

The band sucks right now, and it’s never felt so vulnerable.

(Photo of Sidney Crosby yelling from the bench during the third period Wednesday: Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press)

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