After nearly winning the Atlantic Division last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t played like one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams in 2007-08.
But if the Penguins are looking for a positive about their mediocre start heading into Monday’s game versus the Phoenix Coyotes, they just need to look back to a year ago, when they found themselves in a similar position.
Pittsburgh (11-12-2) was 11-10-4 after 25 games last season before putting the pieces together and challenging for the division title into the final weekend before finishing second to New Jersey with 105 points.
The Penguins had a three-game winning streak—matching a season high— snapped in a 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in which they fell behind 3-0 after two periods. Ryan Malone and Erik Christensen scored third-period goals for Pittsburgh, but it wasn’t enough.
“We had some chances to tie it up in the third, but I don’t think we gave ourselves a good chance in the first two periods,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said.
Crosby, the NHL’s reigning scoring champion, is off to another excellent start after putting up 120 points last season. He has 14 goals and 22 assists through 25 games, and has only played two games without notching a point—both Pittsburgh losses.
Aside from Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (10 goals, 20 assists), the Penguins have had trouble finding consistent scoring. Sergei Gonchar, third on the team and first among NHL defensemen with 24 points, has missed the past two games with a strained groin. And veteran Gary Roberts, who scored seven goals in 19 games after being acquired at last season’s trade deadline, has just one goal in 24 games.
Phoenix (11-13-0) is struggling again this season after finishing with a Western Conference-worst 67 points in 2006-07. The Coyotes, who have lost three straight after a four-game win streak to climb over .500, are trying to avoid a winless four-game road trip.
The Coyotes have had problems scoring goals all season, and that has continued on this trip. They’ve scored just four goals in the three losses and have just 59 this season, better than only the New York Islanders.
Phoenix did carry a 2-1 lead into the third period before losing 3-2 at Detroit on Saturday. Two of Detroit’s goals—including the game-winner—came on the power play, while the Coyotes went 0-for-3 with the man advantage.
“We played OK 5-on-5,” said Phoenix captain Shane Doan, who leads the team with 18 points but has not registered one on the trip. “We got beat on specialty teams.”
Special teams have plagued the Coyotes all season. They have converted just 13 percent of their power plays and killed off only 80 percent of their penalties—both among the worst numbers in the league.
One bright spot for Phoenix has been goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, acquired off waivers from Anaheim. He won his first four starts, but has been in net for the past three losses as well.
The Penguins have won their last two meetings with Phoenix, including a 7-2 win on Jan. 27 in which Crosby and Mark Recchi each had a goal and three assists. The Coyotes had won six in a row prior to those two losses.