Penguins’ skid now sits at three games after a lethargic loss to lowly Canucks

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – What the Canuck is going on up here?

The Penguins’ early-season funk continued Friday night with a 5-1 loss to the lowly Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena. They dropped all three games in Western Canada, typically a place they thrive. None of them were particularly close.

There were frustrating moments and an abysmal period in the losses in Edmonton and Calgary. But the Oilers and Flames are two of the top teams in the West. The Canucks? They are decidedly not. They just got their first victory Thursday.

Friday, it was the Penguins who looked like they had little interest in winning.

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So, Sidney Crosby, what has been missing during this wretched little stretch?

“At some points maybe some urgency. Execution. We had some looks maybe to get back in the game, a few of them, and we didn’t [score], especially tonight,” the Penguins captain said. “I don’t think it’s the same thing [every game] necessarily, but if anything is consistent, it’s been our starts that we’ve struggled with.”

The Penguins have been the better team in the first 20 minutes of just one of their last six games. They mustered five shots in the opening period Friday.

Tanner Pearson, the former Penguins forward, gave the Canucks a 1-0 lead with 6:08 left in an otherwise uneventful first period. The Penguins, on the penalty kill, were outworked on a couple of puck battles and couldn’t get a clear. Seconds after Pierre-Olivier Joseph escaped the box, Pearson netted an easy tap-in.

“We’ve just got to be more determined and understand it’s something we’ve got to focus on and find a way to be better,” Crosby said of their sluggish starts.

The Canucks scored again in the first minute of the second period, and it was a goal Tristan Jarry would probably like to have back. Bo Horvat seemed to surprise him by snapping a shot over his glove from just below from the right dot.

With the Penguins unable to gain traction, coach Mike Sullivan made significant changes to the top of his lineup in the second period. Rickard Rakell was removed from the first line, swapping spots with Danton Heinen. He also split up Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, putting Joseph on the top pair with Letang instead.

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The Penguins created just two high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5 through two periods, per Natural Stat Trick. But they pulled within a goal with a hard-working power-play tally late in the second. Rakell cleaned up a rebound in front.

They came dangerously close to falling back behind by two after a pair of players dozed off in the final seconds of the period. Jeff Petry had an inexplicable giveaway at their blue line then Jarry reacted late to a long-distance Connor Garland blast. A video review confirmed the puck crossed the goal line just after the buzzer.

There were plenty of miscues to choose from in Friday’s loss, but that sequence best summed up the perplexingly lethargic performance by a Penguins team that was trying to avoid its first three-game losing streak of the young season.

“I just don’t think we’re putting a 60-minute effort together. And it’s hard to win in this league when you don’t,” Sullivan said, adding, “You’re always concerned. … It’s our job to figure out how to fix this, and so that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Sullivan kept his emotions in check while speaking with reporters after the game. One presumes that wasn’t the case with his team inside the dressing room.

The Penguins showed a little more life in the third period, but not enough. Andrei Kuzmenko beat Jarry on a deflection with 9:32 remaining to put the game out of their reach. Horvat and J.T. Miller scored late goals to make it a laugher.

“It’s a tough loss. It’s hard to say what’s the problem,” Evgeni Malkin said. “We need to play more harder, for sure. Every team is so good right now. The NHL gets better every year. We just need to play right. Win faceoffs. Don’t take penalties. Win every shift. … I hope we play better [Saturday] and stop the bleeding.”

The Penguins lost the last three games of this trip by a combined 15-5 margin.

They do not appear to be panicking, nor should they. It’s a long season and this is a talented and veteran group. But if this skid has taught them anything, it’s that they can’t just show up and expect to stumble into six goals every night.

“These guys have been through ups and downs in this league,” Sullivan said. “They understand what it takes. So we need everybody to take ownership for their own game, and we’ve got to put our best effort [Saturday] night in Seattle.”

ICE CHIPS

— Sullivan during the third period reverted back to his original defensive pairs.

— Jarry, who hails from the Vancouver area, stopped 24 of 28 shots. He has given up 10 goals in his last two starts after allowing just eight in his first four.

— Friday was not the best night for the guys in stripes. The officials missed several blatant calls and on a few occasions got in the way of the play. However, it did not affect the outcome. Both squads had plenty of things to grumble about.

— Joseph returned to the lineup in Vancouver. Chad Ruhwedel was the healthy scratch. Sullivan on Thursday explained that one factor in Ruhwedel playing over Joseph in Calgary was that the Penguins didn’t want to play Joseph, just 23, three games in four days when they had a trustworthy alternative in Ruhwedel.

— Jake Guentzel and Jason Zucker missed their fourth and second straight game respectively due to injury. Both wingers participated in the optional morning skate at Rogers Arena. Guentzel has been cleared for contact. Zucker has not.

— With Guentzel and Zucker out, Sam Poulin played his second career game.

— Teddy Blueger was not spotted at the morning skate, making it two straight days off the ice. Sullivan said the center, who is on long-term injured reserve, was given a scheduled day off Thursday. It’s unknown why he did not skate Friday.

STAT N’AT

83-52 – total margin by which the Penguins were outshot in the first period of their last six games, and that’s with them outshooting the Oilers, 19-9, Monday.

THEY SAID IT

“Of course, I’m a little bit angry for sure. … But it’s a long season. We need to support each other. We have great team. We’re not in a bad position right now. It’s a long season and we won the first few games of the season.” – Malkin