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Penguins learning ‘what happens if’ lessons

Tribune-Review
| Thursday, December 13, 2018 5:56 p.m
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Chicago Blackhawks left wing Alex DeBrincat, left, scores against Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

After his team pulled out a 2-1 shootout win Saturday night on Long Island, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan made a comment that would prove prophetic 48 hours later.

“I think it’s evidence that if we play the game a certain way, we can have success,” Sullivan said. “And it’s evidence that we have to play the game a certain way with a commitment level that’s high from everybody on the bench in order to win.”

The Penguins didn’t play a certain way in a 6-3 loss to the last-place Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night, unless that certain way is poorly. They didn’t show a particularly high commitment level, especially defensively. They most assuredly did not win.

The now-concluded three-game road trip, which began with a 2-1 overtime loss at Ottawa last Saturday, gave the Penguins a lot of what-happens-if lessons. Here’s a look at three of them.

1. What happens if the results don’t catch up to the stats?

The 6-2-2 run the Penguins went on before Wednesday night’s demoralizing loss wasn’t a mirage. Analytically speaking, the Penguins have been trending in the right direction ever since blowing a 4-1 lead to lose to the Buffalo Sabres 5-4 in overtime Nov. 19.

Before that game, the Penguins had the better of the scoring chances nine times in 18 games. After it, they created more chances than their opponent in eight of 10 games. Their shot-attempt percentage has risen in a similar fashion.

That’s great. Those stats indicate the Penguins are better off now than they were in November.

The problem lies when the results don’t match up to the underlying stats.

The Penguins had a 12-4 advantage in high-danger scoring chances Wednesday night in Chicago. Is that what it looked like on TV?

“I think sometimes there aren’t numbers for finding ways to win,” Sidney Crosby said. “Good teams are able to do that. We’ve got to do a better job of doing that consistently. Yeah, those things, the X’s and O’s or the analytics, that tells you it’s something else. We’ve got to find a way to not make that one mistake. It’s the timing of that mistake, maybe.”

2. What happens if the Penguins throw a game into the lap of their goaltender?

By going 4-1-1 with a .926 save percentage in his first six starts after Matt Murray went down with a lower-body injury, Casey DeSmith seemed to earn a good deal of faith from his teammates.

“I hope so,” DeSmith said. “I just hope I’ve instilled a little bit of trust with the guys and the coaching staff and management. Just to build a foundation of trust was important while Matt was out.”

Perhaps his teammates trusted him too much.

The Penguins asked DeSmith to stop a fair number of high-quality scoring chances on Long Island. They asked him to stop even more than that in Chicago. He succeeded in the first instance and failed in the second.

The point isn’t to analyze how good DeSmith is at stealing games. The point is his teammates probably shouldn’t ask him to do so quite as often.

3. What happens if the top two lines and the No. 1 power-play unit don’t drive the offense?

Crosby played some solid hockey on the trip, but his scoring chances didn’t turn into goals at the same rate as they did in the two home games before that. Evgeni Malkin is stuck in a pretty deep slump, posting one goal, three assists and a minus-9 rating in his last nine games. The Penguins went 1 for 11 on the power play on the trip.

The Penguins’ top talents have been asked to carry a heavy offensive burden for years, and sometimes that’s not fair. But when they don’t feature prominently on the scoresheet, the team’s results are often inconsistent.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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