Gene Collier: Penguins situation shaky as they prepare for another Flyers loss at home
January 21, 2016 12:00 AM
Sidney Crosby is upended by the Flyers' Claude Giroux April 1 of last season when Philadelphia visited Consol Energy Center for a 4-1 win.
By Gene Collier / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On a bone-cold day in Butler County, inside the splendiferous Lemieux Center for Undisclosed Injuries, the Penguins on Wednesday completed preparations for their regularly scheduled home loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
That comes tonight, at least if history is any indication, but regardless of whether Beau Bennett returned to practice (he did) or whether Kris Letang is day to day (aren’t we all?) the larger question is the perceived direction of a hockey season hereabouts that has had all the appeal and potential of a drainage ditch by the side of Route 228.
Penguins defenseman Daley talks about coming to a new team
Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley talking about being a newcomer to the Penguins-Philadelphia. (Video by Dave Molinari)
Penguins defenseman Letang talking about his apparent hand injury
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang talking about his apparent hand injury and the Penguins-Philadelphia rivalry. (Video by David Molinari)
“I feel positive with the way we’ve played and the steps we’ve taken in the last few weeks,” general manager Jimmy Rutherford was saying around lunchtime. “I think we’re finally in a position where we should be able to string some games together to get over the hump.”
Winners of none in a row and just one of their past four, the Penguins remain perhaps the NHL’s most enduring enigma, having rarely spent much time on the up-slope of a hump all season, unless you count the one they finally got over by getting coach Mike Johnston fired two weeks before Christmas.
Losing to Philadelphia tonight would do more than delay any official hump transversal. Tonight’s loss should begin to calcify the notion that these 2015-16 Penguins are never going to be much beyond what they appear — an underachieving team that might well save itself the embarrassment of a first-round playoff exit by bolting for vacation at its earliest convenience.
“We needed to change our style of play,” Rutherford said of the decision to hand this club over to Mike Sullivan, who hasn’t moved the needle much, at least empirically. “We were not quick; we were slow at times. We needed to play a more aggressive style, and we have under Mike Sullivan. We needed to create a lot more opportunities and we needed to be harder to play against.”
So now the Mike Sullivan Penguins face Philadelphia for the first time, and though the head coach seemed almost dismissive in his post-practice comments Wednesday, noting, for example, that all teams have rivals, he surely knows that a win against the orange and black might actually spark something.
But on their most recent visit, April 1 to be exact, it was a fading-ember orange the Flyers dragged to Fifth Avenue. They had failed to win in nine consecutive road appointments to that point, so naturally:
Flyers 4, Penguins 1.
Then a few nights later in Philadelphia, Flyers 4, Penguins 1 again, the Penguins’ eighth consecutive loss in a series that dates to the pre-Woodstock ’60s.
As usual, Philly can’t wait to get here.
Nobody has fewer wins in this NHL than the Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, but the Leaves just beat the Flyers, in Philadelphia, 3-2, on a goal by Matt Hunwick at 19:52 of the third period. How bad are the Flyers going? It was Hunwick’s first goal as a Maple Leaf. They signed him July 1.
Thus the moment the Flyers vault the Penguins among Metropolitan Division also-rans had to wait until tonight. By midnight, the boys from Broad Street figure to be 12-1-1 all time at the Consol Dubious Energy Center, and 13-2-1 counting the postseason, and 1-0 on nights when Lemieux himself carries a water glass onto the ice and spills it, signifying the transference of energy from the old Civic/Mellon Arena, as he did on the night the place opened for hockey business Oct. 7, 2010.
The score that night: Flyers 3, Penguins 2.
And five-plus years of ridiculousness was born.
If there’s a single, tangible, promising development associated with the flightless waterfowl right now it’s Rutherford’s recent acquisition of veteran forward Carl Hagelin, who spent last spring torturing the Penguins in a brief five-and-out with the New York Rangers. Presumably, the fact that he’s Sidney Crosby’s teammate will keep Hagelin from knocking him senseless in the playoffs, should there be any, but that’s not all Hagelin brings to this equation.
“Two things for sure, speed — he’ll make his linemates hard to play against — and the fact that he’s an excellent penalty-killer,” said Rutherford. “He may or may not put up a lot of points, but he changes the way we play.”
Somebody had better change the way this team plays. I have as much faith in Hagelin to do that as anyone, which is probably not a compliment to the rest of them.
On top of that, I have zero faith in the way this team plays against Philadelphia, particularly at home.
On the narrow likelihood that the Penguins can exit the building tonight with two points, perhaps some semblance of a successful hockey season can still be built.
Don’t count on it.
Gene Collier: email@example.com and Twitter @genecollier.
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