Penguins season follow familiar script |
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Jonathan Bombulie
The Penguins’ Derick Brassard (left) celebrates his empty-net goal with Evgeni Malkin as Detroit Red Wings’ Niklas Kronwall skates back to the bench during the third period in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — If a movie franchise had scripts this similar, it would be panned by critics and theatergoers as unoriginal long before the third sequel premiered.

Yet, here the Pittsburgh Penguins are, doing it again.

The good start. The brutal funk. The rousing return to form sometime around the holidays. The playoff matchup with the Washington Capitals for all the marbles.

That same blueprint has played out in each of Mike Sullivan’s first three seasons behind the bench, and it’s three-quarters of the way to fruition in his fourth season as well.

The part about the playoff meeting with the Capitals isn’t inevitable, of course. There’s a long way to go, and the Penguins still have some unsightly wrinkles in their game to iron out. But c’mon. It sure feels like it’s going to happen again, right?

“Beginning of the season, we start off well, and then we have those lulls where we’re in a rut,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “Every team goes through those at some point during the season. Ours just happen to be at the beginning.”

This season, the particulars of the trite tale go something like this:

• A solid 6-1-2 start punctuated by a four-win Canadian road trip.

• An ugly rash of odd-man rushes, failed clears and uneven effort that leads to nine losses in 10 games.

• With a renewed commitment to team defense, Sidney Crosby playing brilliant hockey and goalies Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith heating up, a 13-4-2 run culminating in the active five-game winning streak the Penguins carried into Monday’s New Year’s Eve matchup with the Minnesota Wild.

Those are the facts. Now here’s the conjecture. Why does this keep happening to the Penguins? It’s the same train on the same tracks and they get hit by it pretty much every November.

“I don’t know,” Murray said Sunday. “I don’t have all the answers.”

Well, yeah. No one knows for sure, Matt. What we’re looking for here are some plausible theories.

Crosby has one.

Every year, no matter how little roster change happened over the summer, every team has to find its own way to win. Because of past successes, the Penguins play like they can feel free to skip this step. They cannot.

“Those habits don’t happen overnight,” Crosby said. “The urgency, you can’t necessarily manufacture that all the time. It’s pretty tough to execute at the level you want to after two weeks of training camp. I think everybody needs to get a better understanding of their role and things like that.”

Sullivan has one, too.

“I think it boils down to a mindset,” he said. “To win in this league, it takes a certain level of urgency and a work ethic and a commitment to play on both sides of the puck. There’s such a fine line between winning and losing. There’s so much parity. Throw the standings and the records aside. There’s no easy games. Every game, you have to be at your best. If you don’t, you run the risk of losing.”

Whatever the reason for their predictable early season funk, the Penguins seem to be over it.

They’ve still got some questions about fit on the second and third lines and some puck-moving problems on defense at times, but a happy ending no longer seems out of the question.

All they have to do it write it.

“We’ve played pretty well as of late, but as we always say to our guys, nothing’s inevitable,” Sullivan said. “We have to continue to push the bar to try to become the best team we can be.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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