ST. PAUL, Minn. — Chances are, the bounces are going to even out for the Penguins when they’re playing at even strength this season.
So far, they’ve scored on about 5 percent of their shots in five-on-five situations. That’s the third-worst figure in the league. Last year, they shot around 8.5 percent, fifth-best in the league.
These things tend to even out over the course of an 82-game season, and a team with as many talented scorers as the Penguins won’t stay in the league’s bottom 10 with 17 even-strength goals in 12 games for long.
Still, coach Mike Sullivan had a pointed message for his team after a 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night.
Things aren’t going to even out by mathematical magic. If the Penguins want to score more even-strength goals, they’re going to have to work for them.
“I don’t think we’re good enough five-on-five,” Sullivan said. “We tend to be one and done in the offensive zone. We’re not getting to the net enough. We’re not winning enough loose puck battles, and as a result, we’re not spending enough time there.”
When Sullivan talks about a lack of commitment from his team, he usually is talking about puck-management and decision-making issues. On this occasion, he was talking in part about a lack of commitment to going where the goals are scored.
“We have to do a better job fighting to get inside the dots,” Sullivan said. “When we go low to high, we’ve got to get in the goalie’s sight lines. We need more numbers in front, so when the rebounds are there, we’ve got an opportunity to make a next play. A lot of times, that’s when goals are scored five-on-five.”
The goal the Penguins scored came on a power play in the first period.
A work of art it was not. Evgeni Malkin’s shot from the right faceoff circle hit the stick of Luke Kunin, took a left turn and banked in off the leg of net-front defender Kyle Quincey.
“Lucky goal,” Malkin said. “I’ve never scored like this, a double tip against two ‘D.’ A lucky goal, for sure.”
The Wild tied the score by the end of the first period thanks to a pair of former Penguins forwards.
Matt Cullen took a shot from the blue line that bounced away from goalie Matt Murray. Daniel Winnik gathered the puck and steered it around the lunging netminder with less than seven minutes left in the period.
The Wild scored the winner midway through the third.
Minutes after Bryan Rust hit the post on a breakaway coming out of the penalty box, Mikko Koivu redirected in a Mike Reilly pass from the right point to give Minnesota the lead for good.
It was the first regulation loss of the season for Murray, who fell to 7-1-1. He took a beating in the game, too, getting knocked to the ice by Reilly in a second-period collision and getting kneed during a third-period net-front scramble.
In general, the Penguins are in the midst of an early season quest to find their level.
For their first nine games, they often were caught playing fast and loose, giving up an average of 4.33 goals per game.
Their past three games, conversely, have finished with 2-1 scores, two that were wins thanks to Phil Kessel overtime heroics before Saturday’s loss.
There’s a middle ground the team has yet to find.
“I think we have to play our game,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “We have to find a way to play our game for 60 minutes. That’s a big key right now. We play one good period. We sit back. When need a goal, we start going. We had tons of chances at the end, just can’t score. “
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.