Yohe’s 10 observations: Sidney Crosby’s line dominated by Leafs in concerning Penguins’ loss

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While Mike Sullivan was solemnly speaking during another postgame press conference following yet another loss, a mouse kept poking its head from under the podium in which Sullivan sat on the event level at PPG Paints Arena.

If only the Penguins’ problems were so small.

The Penguins’ top line was on the ice for all five goals against as Matt Murray and the Maple Leafs beat the struggling Penguins, 5-2, on Tuesday.

“It’s not good enough,” said Jake Guentzel, who was a career-worst minus-5. “We all know we need to be better in every aspect. It starts in the D-Zone. The offense will come.”

It was, yet again, a seemingly stunned Penguins’ locker room in the aftermath of their ninth loss in 11 games.

Almost every recent problem reared its head in this game, with far more force than the mouse that made its presence felt during Sullivan’s press conference.

The Penguins gave up odd-man rushes early and often all night, their power play again failed to score, their goaltending didn’t operate at a high level, Crosby’s line struggled again and Kris Letang struggled again.

What’s the biggest problem?

“I’m not sure,” Guentzel said. “Plain and simple, we need to be better. We need to defend hard. We know we can be a good line.”

Letang had a slightly different take than his teammates.

“I don’t think we played bad,” he said, curiously. “I think we carried most of the game.”

There was one problem, however.

“Little mistakes against a talented team like that, they’re going to bury them,” Letang said. “You can’t keep giving up two-on-ones and three-on-twos over and over.”

The Maple Leafs took a 2-0 lead in the first period, and then, in what has become classic Penguins’ fashion, they allowed a two-on-one only 11 seconds into the period. Just like that, it was 3-0.

The Penguins mounted a comeback powered by goals from Rickard Rakell and Sidney Crosby.

However, Crosby was unable to handle a pass and Letang failed to box out Michael Bunting in the final minute of the second period, giving the Maple Leafs all of the insurance they would need.

“We have moments when we’re playing well,” Sullivan said. “Playing on our toes. Dictating the terms. Then there are lapses when it seems like we break down. The breakdowns are egregious and they’re hard to recover from.”

The Penguins’ current play is going to be hard to recover from, too.

It’s no secret that the Eastern Conference is a bear. Losing nine of 11 games isn’t a good formula for postseason success and now the Penguins head to the game for a three-game road trip, starting on Thursday in Minnesota.

Ten postgame observations

1. The first line was staggeringly bad.

You’ll recall that, 72 hours earlier in Montreal, the top line looked completely out of sorts. It only got worse against Toronto, even though Crosby gave the Penguins plenty of life when his pretty backhand goal pulled the Penguins within a goal.

Crosby was a minus-4. Rust was also a minus-4 and, in his last six games, he’s produced zero points and is a minus-8.

Sullivan acknowledged that seeing this line struggle is strange.

“They’ve been such of a good line for so long,” he said. “The last few games, it’s been a struggle for them. I know it’s not a lack of effort. We’re trying to help them through the process.”

The Crosby line was simply invisible in Montreal. In this game, it actually did produce some offense, especially during a second-period surge. But the careless passing and the lack of attention to detail in the defensive zone was pretty putrid.

2. Here’s a simple thought.

Sullivan should yank Rust off of the top line. Remember in the season’s first two weeks, when the Penguins were steamrolling everyone? They were playing with Rakell on Crosby’s right wing. Rust was playing with Evgeni Malkin and Jason Zucker.

I appreciate that the Malkin line is humming right now and that Rakell has fit nicely on the right side. Still, it’s time for a change. Crosby and Guentzel play very well with Rakell. Rust has always played well with Malkin.

It seems to make too much sense and I think the Penguins should make the change at practice on Wednesday.

3. It’s easy — trust me, it’s really easy — to focus on the mental mistakes the Penguins make every night.

Suffice it to say, they aren’t hard to locate. I actually think the Penguins have a bigger problem, though. I have been struck by how ordinary they look from a physical standpoint. They aren’t the fastest teams in the league anymore. I’m not sure they’re even in the top half of the league anymore in that category. They are skilled, more than most. But they don’t blow you away with skill like the Maple Leafs do. They certainly aren’t big or physical. Far from it, in fact.

When you see these Penguins play in person, you come away struck by how slow and small they look, at least relative to how they’ve looked in previous seasons. If you’re already physically unimpressed, you can’t make the mistakes these Penguins make. There once was a time when the Penguins were so much more gifted than most opposing teams that they could make these same mistakes and still win, just because they possessed better players than the opposition.

I don’t feel like this is the case at the moment.

4. I will give Letang credit for taking more shots on the power play.

The Penguins didn’t score on the man advantage but they will soon if they maintain the shooter’s mentality. He actually took a few shots and, if he keeps doing that, things will open up.

Yet Letang is still playing some very poor hockey. Yes, the lack of offense from Letang is a problem. So is the poor quarterbacking of the power play. The turnovers aren’t pretty, either. But here’s something else to note: Letang is losing a ton of battles in front of the net. Forwards are easily boxing him out right now. This has never been a problem of his and it must change immediately.

His game is a mess.

5. Marcus Pettersson has been, without question, the Penguins’ best defenseman this season.

He was absolutely horrendous against the Maple Leafs. Pettersson was caught far behind the play when Mitch Marner gave Toronto a 2-0 advantage in the first period.

Pettersson then made a bad pinch in the opening seconds of the third period, giving Bunting the first of his two goals. (Everything about this goal was embarrassing from the Penguins’ standpoint. Watch how Pettersson makes a bad decision, the forwards show no awareness in covering for him and Letang plays the two on one horribly. Everything was rotten about this play.)

I wouldn’t worry about Pettersson. He’s been solid as a rock and bad games happen. He’s been so good this season that I don’t think anyone would have been expecting him to struggle. But he couldn’t do anything right on Tuesday.

6. Murray played well, stopping 35 of 37 shots.

The Penguins shot toward his infamously shaky glove-hand side early and often, to little avail.

This was Murray’s first game in Pittsburgh since being traded by the Penguins in 2020 and I thought he was fairly sharp. Good for him.

7. Sullivan clearly isn’t thrilled with Tristan Jarry’s play at the moment, going with Casey DeSmith once again.

I can’t say that any of the goals were the result of bad goaltending. DeSmith was fine. But the Penguins really could use a game where their goaltender stands on his head. It’s been a while.

8. Teddy Blueger made his return to the lineup and played pretty well.

Blueger, Josh Archibald and Ryan Poehling looked good together on the fourth line. There was a nice blend of size and speed on that line and I’m guessing Sullivan will keep it together for the upcoming road trip.

9. That’s the best I’ve seen John Tavares look in a handful of years.

The Toronto captain opened the scoring with a perfectly placed shot from the high slot and was a force throughout. He looks a step quicker than he did last season.

10. After talking with the Penguins, there is a sense that everything is going to be OK, as far as they’re concerned.

Maybe that’s the case. Maybe that’s how veteran teams should behave during a tough stretch of hockey. I’m just not sold.

Just because you’re the Penguins, and just because you’ve made the playoffs for 16 straight seasons, it doesn’t mean that you’re destined to turn things around just because you always have in the past.

I sincerely believe this team needs a wake-up call. And in a hurry.

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