TEMPE, Ariz. — Only 48 hours earlier, Mike Sullivan fumed in Las Vegas about his team’s lack of attention to detail.
His team responded interestingly on Monday.
With Tristan Jarry on the bench during a delayed penalty situation, Kris Letang delivered a drop pass toward the Penguins goal that Evgeni Malkin fumbled into his own net. Pittsburgh never recovered — and didn’t show much of a pulse the rest of the way — in a 5-2 loss to the Arizona Coyotes at Mullet Arena.
The Penguins were short-handed in the third period when a penalty was called on the Coyotes. At the time, they were trailing in the game 3-2. Bryan Rust had possession of the puck and very intelligently headed back into the Penguins’ territory. This was a smart move, as it enabled Pittsburgh the time to rag the puck, extending the time on what would ultimately become a Penguins’ power play.
Rust couldn’t have imagined that a couple of future Hall of Famers would somehow deliver the puck into their own net.
The Penguins score an own goal on a delayed penalty 😬 pic.twitter.com/DfOK8e9KWs
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 23, 2024
The scene was unforgettable. As the puck slid across the goal line, a stunned Malkin waved his hand at the puck after an unsuccessful last-ditch effort to stop it.
Letang said “Oh my god” a moment later. Sidney Crosby skated around the ice with his stick on top of his helmet, looking like he wanted to pull a Bo Jackson and break the twig on his head. Sullivan stood stone-faced on the bench.
Malkin declined requests to speak about the incident following the game.
Letang did speak about the play.
“I should know better, I guess,” he said. “I guess I’ll learn from that.”
Letang did note, accurately, that his pass wouldn’t have gone into the net without Malkin’s assistance.
“If you look at it,” Letang said, “My pass was going to the corner. It was not going in the net. But I should know better. I should not go backward when there is no goalie, I guess.”
All of this happened after Sullivan lamented his team’s lack of attention to detail.
Of all the plays in Penguins history that have showcased a lack of attention to detail and a lack of overall awareness — there have been many — this one rests high on the list.
“I think we just have to have a heightened awareness that we don’t have the goalie in the net in that scenario,” Sullivan said. “We have to avoid making plays in that area. If we have a heightened awareness, then we don’t fall victim to the bad bounce.”
The Penguins would have had a power play for more than a minute and some open ice in a four-on-four situation had this not happened. At the time, they were down by only a goal. But his moment killed any chance they had.
“It’s hard to come back from two or three down,” Lars Eller said. “It just wasn’t the game we wanted to play.”
Eller acknowledged the team was shocked after the own goal.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said. “S— happens.”
Letang noted that the Penguins’ attitude was a problem against the Coyotes. Eller, who was displeased with what he saw during this trip, didn’t disagree.
“It’s not great,” Eller said. “You’re going to have games when you don’t have it. The Vegas game bothers me more. When you’re having a good game, you have to win those. Today, there were many things that weren’t there. Attitude. Execution. Everything.”
And just like that, the Penguins are five games out of a playoff spot. The loss in Vegas was a painful one, as the Penguins blew a 2-0 lead in the third period to lose in regulation.
What happened against Arizona was perhaps even more troubling. They were outplayed by a team with inferior talent. They lost in humiliating fashion.
“I think we just didn’t play very good defense,” Eller said. “We gave them too much time and space. We didn’t close fast enough. They were rimming pucks back and forth on the wall. We didn’t do a very good job of anticipating that, which led to a lot of zone time for them. We were skating without the puck, and wasting energy. Not great.”
It sure isn’t.
Sullivan, though, was undeterred after the game. He has ripped previous teams after games during his tenure in Pittsburgh. He won’t do it to this one. Not publicly, at least.
“We have to dust ourselves off,” he said. “Get back and fight. It wasn’t our best. It didn’t go our way. We have a lot of hockey in front of us. We have to figure out how we’re going to get our best.”
Sullivan was asked if he was discouraged by the past four periods.
“I’m not,” he said. “I believe in this group. We have good players. I believe we have what it takes to win consistently. Obviously, we’re disappointed in the last four periods. We recognize it’s not our best. But discouraged isn’t a word that should enter our dressing room. We have to get more determined.”
Ten postgame observations
• Take your pick if Malkin or Letang was more to blame on the now infamous own goal, which, by the way, was credited to Lawson Crouse.
Malkin shouldn’t have been skating backward toward his own net and didn’t pick a good time to mishandle the puck. Two nights after enduring a poor outing in Vegas, Malkin wasn’t much better in this game. He’s very much off right now.
However, I lay most of the blame on Letang. I just don’t see the sense in throwing a drop pass anywhere around your net when the goaltender isn’t in said net. He simply has to know better in that situation.
• I found myself feeling bad for Rust immediately after this goal.
Rust had the puck and could have simply maintained possession in the offensive zone. Instead, he made the intelligent decision to rag the puck, killing time on the Jansen Harkins’ penalty, ultimately giving the Penguins more time on the power play.
It was a very high IQ play. A very intelligent situational play.
And it backfired in his face.
• I give Letang credit for speaking with the media about the play. He’s as prideful as it gets and I can’t imagine being surrounded by reporters two minutes after the game was what he preferred to be doing at that moment.
I’m also not going to give Malkin a hard time for not speaking with the media about it. I rarely give athletes a hard time about that. It’s their choice. Malkin and Letang are future Hall of Famers, men of immense pride. This one will live forever, and I can’t imagine how much that must bother them.
• We will always remember this play. It’s hard to forget. But it should be noted that the Penguins didn’t deserve to win this game and probably wouldn’t have won this game even if the own goal didn’t take place.
They were out-worked and out-skated all game. They didn’t look all that eager to participate which, given where they are, should come as a concern.
• One other tidbit: This marks the first time in NHL history when a team scored a power-play goal without registering a power-play shot on net. I suspect this is the only time this will happen in our lifetimes. It all just kind of leaves you speechless.
• The Penguins are wasting brilliant work from Crosby. He was denied on an early breakaway but responded with a brilliant redirection for a goal that evened the game at 2 in the second period.
Sidney Crosby has 36 points (13G-23A) in 24 career games against the Arizona Coyotes. pic.twitter.com/ipTdI0k241
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 23, 2024
I don’t know if anyone in the world scores goals like that more regularly. Exceptional stuff.
He also put together a spectacular shift to start the third period, nearly leading to the tying goal.
• Karlsson notched the primary assist on that goal, which gives the defenseman a nine-game scoring streak. That’s great.
But he’s not playing good hockey right now. He was again responsible for multiple odd-man rushes against. Sullivan let him hear in on the bench, also. He needs to play better.
• It was a bad night for the blue line, other than Chad Ruhwedel and P-O Joseph, who were both perfectly fine. Even the reliable Marcus Pettersson looked a little off.
• Rickard Rakell had been playing better, but he was banished to the third line in Arizona. He was pretty invisible all night. The Penguins need so much more from him.
• I don’t know if the Penguins will recover from this. I know that sounds dramatic, but this was a horrific two-game trip, the kind of trip that can bury a team.
Kyle Dubas stayed home in Pittsburgh because of scouting meetings, but you know he was watching. And this trip made it more difficult for him to become a buyer at the trade deadline. The Penguins have two games before the NHL All-Star Break, home to Florida on Friday and Montreal on Saturday. If those don’t get at least three points in those games, serious trouble could be ahead.
(Photo of Sidney Crosby controlling the puck against Sean Durzi of the Coyotes: Rick Scuteri / USA Today)