Mark Madden: Expect Penguins to find structure when needed |
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Mark Madden
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby (87), Phil Kessel (81), and Evgeni Malkin (71) sit on the bench during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Montreal Canadiens in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. The Canadiens won 5-1.

The most frustrating point of the Penguins’ season to date wasn’t part of their 5-1 loss to Montreal at PPG Paints Arena this past Saturday.

It came in the Penguins’ 7-6 home victory over Washington last Thursday. The Penguins led 6-4, but Evgeni Malkin made a catastrophic defensive-zone cough-up with 7 minutes left in regulation. The Capitals’ T.J. Oshie converted the turnover, then scored again 21 seconds later to tie the score, 6-6.

If Malkin simply knocks the puck up the boards, the result bleeds out. Goalie Matt Murray likely feels like he’s rallied after allowing three goals in the first period.

But Malkin didn’t.

The Penguins won in overtime. No harm done, but …

“We’re a team, right now, that just wants to score instead of just playing the game the right way,” said coach Mike Sullivan after Montreal had routed his team.

Sullivan’s job won’t permit him to get used to that.

But that’s been the way of the Penguins dating back to Mario Lemieux’s era. Stars want statistics and want to entertain the fans, themselves and each other. Fundamentals get sacrificed. That’s no indictment of said stars, or even Malkin for his egregious mistake against Washington.

When the time comes for structure, the Penguins find it, usually on a consistent basis. Five Stanley Cups provide evidence.

But until that time, which usually arrives around February or so, the commitment to what Sullivan wants figures to be sporadic. That means his anger will occasionally be palpable, as it was after losing to Montreal.

There are exceptions to the Penguins’ pursuit of stats and fun. One, predictably, is Sidney Crosby. The other is the coach’s kid, Jake Guentzel.

Despite the chaos of the first two games, Crosby and Guentzel are each plus-1. That’s heroic considering the Penguins have allowed 10 even-strength goals and scored six.

Crosby’s fundamentals need not be reaffirmed. No superstar player has ever colored inside the lines better.

Guentzel’s probably don’t need to be, either.

The son of longtime University of Minnesota assistant coach Mike Guentzel, Jake Guentzel’s play reflects how steeped he is in the basics. It’s why he’s an ideal linemate for Crosby. They have the same brain.

The rest of the Penguins don’t. Some come closer than others.

Despite panic from a fraction of the citizens — it’s what they do — little happened in the first two games that merits major concern.

The most disappointing facet of those games was Murray’s play. He wasn’t embarrassingly bad, but 11 goals are 11 goals.

Murray could have used a better start after last season’s ups and downs, and now he’s concussed. That’s Murray’s third concussion since his NHL debut in December, 2015. It’s his eighth injury.

If you want a tweak, defenseman Jack Johnson looked better on the left side during preseason than he did on the right during the first two games. Jamie Oleksiak does better on the right. Flip those two. Put Johnson with Justin Schultz, and Oleksiak with Olli Maatta. Or use Johnson and Oleksiak together.

Sullivan might have his own tweak in mind.

Finnish rookie defenseman Juuso Riikola, the training-camp sensation, replaced Maatta in the top six at practice. Riikola paired with Oleksiak.

That seems a bit knee-jerk, though Maatta has struggled. Perhaps management wants to see Riikola play at the NHL level before dispatching him to the Penguins’ Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm team.

Daniel Sprong looks a bit uncomfortable with a fourth-line role and fourth-line minutes. But he’s unproven. It’s on him to make the best of it.

The Penguins will buckle down when the occasion dictates.

Until then, enjoy the show. That Washington game was a lot of fun. The Montreal game, not so much.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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