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Mark Madden: Penguins must shift to competition mode |

Mark Madden: Penguins must shift to competition mode

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Devils' Blake Coleman beats Penguins goaltender Matt Murray in the second period Friday, March 23, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Devils' Blake Coleman beats Penguins goaltender Matt Murray in the second period Friday, March 23, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.

Lately, the Penguins are largely playing sloppy and uninspired. They are just two points from sliding into a wild-card spot.

But the Penguins are also 6-2-2 in their last 10 games. Talent can overcome.

The Penguins’ inconsistency and unimpressive execution was explained thusly by a veteran NHL scout: “They want the playoffs to start tomorrow.”

That would be good — as long as it’s not against New Jersey, 3-0 against the Penguins this season and 4-3 winners Friday at PPG Paints Arena.

That game was a microcosm of the Penguins’ recent malaise: control the first period but lead just 1-0 at the first intermission; concede three goals in 3 minutes, 39 seconds and trail 3-1 after two periods; battle back to 3-3 by the end of regulation; inexplicably leave MVP candidate Taylor Hall wide open for a breakaway 27 seconds into overtime, and he converts for the New Jersey win.

There were lots of anxious moments between the headlines: The Penguins had the puck on a delayed infraction to the Devils, but Carl Hagelin evened it up via goaltender interference. Jamie Oleksiak didn’t just put the puck in the stands to get a delay-of-game penalty, he blasted a wrister toward the upper bowl. The Penguins’ short-handed unit allowed one goal on two kill attempts and has surrendered eight goals in 20 opportunities over the last seven games.

They don’t miss defenseman Ian Cole as much as fanboy panic indicates. But the Penguins could sure use Cole on the PK, which is just 28 for 40 (70 percent) since Cole was traded.

The Penguins’ puck management is sporadic. They make endless errors at both blue lines. Defensemen join every rush, resulting in a plethora of odd-man breaks the other way. Several foes have caught up speed-wise. Physicality is at a bare minimum. There isn’t a Plan B. That’s understandable, because the Penguins haven’t needed one in over two years. But what if they do?

Yet, despite the listed shortcomings, the Penguins remain among the Stanley Cup favorites. They know how to win and when to win.

But it would be good to “play the game the right way” a few times before the playoffs start. Just to be sure they remember how and for 60 minutes.

Now to dispel a few myths:

Kris Letang isn’t at the top of his game but is nowhere near the bottom. In 35 games since Jan. 1, he has four goals, 15 assists and a plus-6 mark. His inconsistency is frustrating. He too often puck-watches and assumes teammates will win puck battles. Letang occasionally gets beat on speed, once an extreme rarity. He was on the ice for three New Jersey goals Friday, including Hall’s winner in OT.

But Letang is the Penguins’ best defenseman and averages over 25 minutes. He’s proven he can be counted on. So count on him.

Anyway, what are the options? Kevin Czuczman? Andrey Pedan?

Goalie Matt Murray’s goals-against average (2.86) and save percentage (.908) are well worse than his usual numbers. Murray called his play against New Jersey “average,” and that’s a good word to describe his season to date.

But while Murray can perform better, he’s often been a victim of his team’s sloppiness and style. Again, what are the options? Casey DeSmith? Tristan Jarry?

Murray has won two Stanley Cups. Letang has contributed to three.

It’s not that time yet. It will be soon. The proper response will be expected.

Not all signs are bad.

Sidney Crosby has a goal and assist in each of his last two games. Phil Kessel is on a four-game point streak. Evgeni Malkin has five multi-point games in March, and his MVP pace is not slowing. Derick Brassard has points in five straight games, and his play is accelerating literally and figuratively.

To be sure, the Penguins have to shift from coronation mode to competition mode. Perhaps Sunday’s game against the old enemy will help.

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

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