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Is The Pittsburgh Penguins' Physicality Hurting Them Late in Games?

D-man Deryk Engelland brings toughness to the lineup, but how much is too much?
D-man Deryk Engelland brings toughness to the lineup, but how much is too much?Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Matt GajtkaCorrespondent INovember 21, 2016

In an article earlier this week on SportsHaze.com, I pinpointed discipline as one of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ problem areas going forward. Coincidentally, I also listed late collapses, especially at home, as another aspect that needs to be corrected in the second half of the season.

Upon further reflection, a question arose in my mind: could the two sore spots somehow be related?

Today on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s website, superb blogger Seth Rorabaugh detailed the Penguins’ increased emphasis on “taking the body” and grinding down opponents under coach Dan Bylsma. Compare the current focus to the team’s more passive approach under former bench boss Michel Therrien, in which the Pens would lay off the forecheck in hopes of creating turnovers in the neutral zone and counterattacking.

Rorabaugh’s thorough research of the Penguins’ rankings in penalties, penalty minutes and times shorthanded over the past four seasons indicates that, in terms of those statistics, the Black and Gold have become one of the preeminent NHL clubs when it comes to making opponents black and blue.

This is certainly a departure from the team’s reputation for, well, nearly its entire existence, but it’s fair to question whether the increased brutality leads to additional wins. With Monday’s spectacular disintegration at the hands of the Boston Bruins still achingly fresh, there’s no better time to ask about the sustainability of constant attrition.

After converting a 3-2 lead through 40 minutes into a victory at Montreal Wednesday, the Penguins have built an .833 winning percentage when on top after two periods. Without league-wide context, that figure seems good enough, but in reality it’s only 20th-best in the 30-team NHL. By contrast, four squads (Carolina, Los Angeles, Colorado and the Rangers) have yet to squander a second-intermission advantage.

Shifting from the macro to the micro, from blown leads to goal differential, the Penguins don’t look any better. Although their plus-35 overall differential ranks third in the NHL, Pittsburgh is getting outscored 41-40 in the final frame. Compare that to plus-17 in the first and plus-19 in the second, and we see a team that is appreciably flagging as the clock expires.

Bylsma and his players have consistently pinned the blame for lackluster late play on not “getting to [their] game” and similar euphemisms, but it’s altogether possible that the Penguins—first in the league in minor penalties, total penalties, penalty minutes per game and times shorthanded—are wearing themselves out with their aggressiveness.

If this is the case, it’s a major issue since the expressed goal of Bylsma’s blitz is to wear the opponents down.

The trend of late-game lapses is even more demonstrable at the CONSOL Energy Center, where they have surrendered 62 of their 105 goals against. At their new home rink, the Penguins have suffered all three of their blown 40-minute leads on the season, plus a game against the Rangers in which they threw away a 2-1 cushion with two minutes to play.

Whether the culprit is adrenaline burnout, overly-passive play, poor defensive-zone execution or simple fatigue, the Penguins cannot afford too many more results like Monday’s, especially on home ice.

While the coaching staff looks into alleviating this negative trend, it’s worth examining if the Penguins have boosted their physicality past the human body’s physical limit.

Read more Pittsburgh Penguins columns and recaps from Matt Gajtka at www.sportshaze.com/pittsburgh.

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