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Penguins head into break with nagging inconsistencies

Updated 9 hours ago

As they watched goalie Casey DeSmith try to fend off breakaway after breakaway throughout a 7-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins were faced with a harsh reality.

It’s not that they’re a bumbling bunch whose championship window is closing. That’s way too dramatic.

The .604 winning percentage they’ve managed through the first 48 games of the season is a perfectly fine pace to get them into the playoffs relatively comfortably.

No, the harsh reality is that they’re a team capable of transitioning from an eight-game winning streak to a 2-3-0 western road trip in a matter of days.

They’re capable of erasing a 3-1 deficit like it’s nothing, like they did in the second period against Vegas, then immediately following that up by allowing four unanswered goals.

Consistency is the hallmark of a Cup-caliber club, and the Penguins sure haven’t found it yet this season.

“We’ve got to make sure that we play a brand of hockey that’s playoff ready that gives us a chance to win night in and night out,” coach Mike Sullivan said.

After the loss, the Penguins were set to scatter across North America for a week-long midseason break.

Sullivan said he wants his team to enjoy the time off.

“I think it will be good for all of us to get away from the game a little bit,” he said.

He also said he expects to see playoff-caliber consistency when the break is over.

“When we come back, we’ve got to be focused and determined on playing our best hockey,” Sullivan said. “The most important thing from my standpoint, and this is what I said to them after the game, is that we have to find a way to become a team that has a clear identity of what it is and how we’re going to play and then everybody’s got to buy into it. Everyone, to a man, has got to buy into it.”

Here are three things we learned from Saturday night’s game.

1. Turning point

It wasn’t hard to pick out the turning point. With the score tied 3-3 in the second period, an Evgeni Malkin power-play goal was waved off when he kicked the puck into the net. Seconds later, Marc-Andre Fleury did the splits to stop a Phil Kessel backdoor chance.

Minutes after that, a stickhandling misadventure by DeSmith led to a Jonathan Marchessault goal that gave the Golden Knights the lead for good.

In general, Fleury was excellent as he made 34 saves to improve to 2-1 against his old team. DeSmith made some remarkable stops among his 28 saves, including four on breakaways, but the Marchessault goal was a killer. He’s dropped three straight starts.

2. Scheduled loss

Saturday night’s game may have been the most difficult circumstances the Penguins will face all season.

They were playing on consecutive nights after flying in from Arizona while the Golden Knights had been off since Tuesday. On top of that, their last game before a long break was played in the most distracting city in the league.

Human nature suggests they would lack focus, and they did.

3. Middle-six woes

Sullivan continued to shuffle up personnel on the second and third lines. Kessel spent most of the game in an unfamiliar position on the left wing with Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist. Dominik Simon and Bryan Rust swapped places midgame.

There was nothing wrong with the changes in a vacuum. Kessel and Simon both scored goals. In the big picture, though, they show the Penguins have found no consistency in the middle six.

Whether the answers are found internally or externally before the Feb. 25 trade deadline, they need to get the puzzle pieces to fit together better.

Follow the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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