By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH – New coach Mike Sullivan knows the issues that currently plague the Pittsburgh Penguins won’t be a quick fix.
And even though general manager Jim Rutherford pulled off a significant in-game trade to bolster the defense, the Penguins are far from a finished product.
Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson scored in the first period for the Washington Capitals and T.J. Oshie ended it with two goals in the third as the Penguins finished with a season-high 45 shots in Sullivan’s debut, but managed just one goal during a 4-1 defeat at Consol Energy Center on Monday.
“I thought we had opportunities to shoot more than we did,” Sullivan said after his first game as head coach of the Penguins.
“I’m trying to get a handle on the mindset of the group and where we’re at right now. I think we’ve got to find a way to free ourselves up to be more instinctive and not press.”
Sullivan, during his first weekend as head coach, has stressed the importance of mobile, puck-moving defenseman breaking out of the zone clean and possessing the puck in an effort to jump-start the team’s talented offensive group.
Rutherford tried to help Monday when he dealt Rob Scuderi to Chicago for Trevor Daley in a swap for struggling defensemen. Both are signed through next season around $3.3 million and the Penguins will pick up a third of Daley’s salary.
“We talked about Trevor Daley for a month or so, but never to the point where we could make it a good fit,” Rutherford said. “Trevor has been a good NHL player and he can certainly help our team from a puck moving point of view.”
Scuderi won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009 and again in Los Angeles. The 36-year-old Scuderi provided leadership when he returned to Pittsburgh in 2013-14, but his limited mobility played a part in his on-ice struggles.
The 32-year-old Daley netted a career-best 16 goals in Dallas last season. He was traded to Chicago in the summer for Patrick Sharp, but never fit in with the defending Stanley Cup champions, finishing without a goal in 29 games. The Penguins plan to give Daley an opportunity to recapture last season’s form with an increased role on the blueline.
“He’s a mobile defenseman and a puck-moving guy who can score goals,” Sullivan said. “Certainly, I think he’s a guy that can help us as far as moving the puck out of our end zone.”
Pittsburgh trailed by a goal entering the third against Washington on Monday and had an opportunity to tie it with a power play midway through the period. The Penguins came up empty and Oshie put the Capitals ahead by two goals with a wraparound 30 seconds later.
Backstrom scored his 10th and Carlson his fifth, while Oshie netted his ninth and 10th for the Capitals, who finished a three-game road trip with two wins. Braden Holtby made 44 saves for his 19th win of the season.
Evgeni Malkin scored his 14th of the season and Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 30 shots, but it wasn’t enough for the Penguins, who have dropped seven of their last 10 and four of the previous five, prompting the coaching change.
“I thought our effort was there and we generated some good chances,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “Generally, when you get that many shots, you’re giving yourself a pretty good chance to win games, but not necessarily getting bounces. We have to find a way to earn those bounces.”
Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston, who was dismissed Saturday after less than two years with the team. It’s the 10th time in franchise history the Penguins made an in-season coaching change and the first since Dan Bylsma led Pittsburgh to its third Stanley Cup after replacing Michel Therrien in February 2009.
Sullivan, who was the head coach with Boston from 2003-06, is in his first year with the Penguins’ franchise, having led the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to an 18-5 start. The AHL Penguins ranked in the top 10 in goals for and against and top seven in power play and penalty kill under Sullivan.
At Pittsburgh, Sullivan is tasked with sparking a star-studded lineup that has underperformed through the first two months of the season. The power play has struggled and the Penguins rank near the bottom of the league in scoring despite a lineup that includes Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel, three of the most prolific scorers in the league.
“I’m a coach that doesn’t want to take the stick out of our players’ hands,” Sullivan said. “I want to allow the top guys to act on instincts and create.”
Pittsburgh fell behind by two goals seven minutes into the Sullivan era.
Oshie helped set up the first goal less than four minutes into the game when he delayed at the top of the circle and dished a pass to Backstrom, who ripped a wrist shot over Fleury’s glove.
Fleury initially denied a wide open Carlson from the slot, but he gathered his own rebound and scored to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead.
Malkin cut the lead in half later in the period when he tipped Ben Lovejoy’s point shot behind Holtby. Kessel recorded his first point in five games, setting up the play with a drop pass to Lovejoy at the blueline.
It got the Penguins back in the game, and while they had their chances for a tie, they couldn’t push through. Sullivan isn’t discouraged after one game.
“My experience is that it’s a process,” Sullivan said. “We’re asking our guys to focus on going to the rink and trying to get better. I hope we can expedite that and I still believe a lot of it stems from our own frame of mind. We need to become a more determined and resilient team under difficult circumstances.”
NOTES: Beau Bennett left in the first period and Sullivan said the team would likely ‘lose the forward for awhile.’ … Sullivan led Boston to the Northeast Division title in his first season with the team. Sullivan, who played 11 NHL seasons with four teams, went 70-56-23 with Boston and 59-22-9-4 in the AHL. … The Penguins honored a visibly moved Pascal Dupuis with an emotional video tribute in the first period. Dupuis’ NHL career ended last week because of a medical condition related to blood clots.