DENVER — The Pittsburgh Penguins know they are getting their opponents’ best game every night.
It is the price of winning back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, and so far this season, the Penguins are struggling to be up to the task.
The reigning champs needed a late goal on Saturday to defeat the Arizona Coyotes — the worst team in the NHL — and avoid starting 0-2-0 on their three-game Western Conference road trip. With a little momentum, the Penguins (17-14-3) face the Avalanche on Monday — a week after Colorado beat them 2-1 in Pittsburgh.
One reason Pittsburgh has won only as many as it has lost is defense. The Penguins have allowed 108 goals this season, fifth most in the NHL, despite giving up only two goals in each of the past three games.
“We know how we’re playing,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We have ideas on where we need to go in order to be a team that wins some of these games. I think it’s easy to look at the game or the last couple games and say we only scored one goal. It’s an interesting correlation how when you defend hard, you can generate offense off of your defense.”
The defense will have to be sharp against the Avalanche, who are coming off a tough home loss to Tampa Bay on Saturday night. Colorado nearly rallied from two four-goal deficits against the NHL’s best team before dropping a 6-5 decision.
The Avalanche sustained more than a defeat against Tampa Bay. Defenseman Erik Johnson received a two-game suspension from the NHL on Sunday for his boarding hit on Vladislav Namestnikov late in the second period.
Namestnikov was on the ice for a few minutes following a slash by Johnson as the Lightning forward was taking a shot. Johnson then shoved him into the boards. Johnson was given a penalty and a game misconduct.
The Avalanche had to deal with captain Gabriel Landeskog’s four-game suspension a couple of weeks ago, and now they will miss their leader in ice time.
Landeskog has come back strong from his suspension, and he registered his second hat trick of the season on Saturday night. Nathan MacKinnon, who has been an offensive force of late, recorded his second straight two-goal performance in the loss to the Lightning.
After having just one goal in his first 10 games, MacKinnon has 14 in the past 22. He leads the team with 38 points.
“I felt it was coming. In October I felt like I was playing pretty good,” said MacKinnon, who is the offseason training partner of Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby.
“I played better in some of those games and didn’t get anything, and I got some points in some games where I didn’t play that great the last month and a half.”
The Avalanche (15-15-2) are last in the Central Division, a spot they occupied for most of last year, but they insist they are a different team. They are just seven wins shy of matching last year’s total.
“We are here to play and we are not going to be pushed around and we’re not going to give up on anybody,” Landeskog said after the Saturday game. “I think the most important thing is we showed it to ourselves tonight. You know, the four-on-four goal there, their fifth goal (ticks) me off. I mean, that’s missed coverage by me, and you just have to think if that doesn’t happen then all of the sudden we have a tied hockey game. But nonetheless, it sends a strong message to us and the players in this dressing room that we can do this and we can come from behind.”
Colorado is trying to sweep the season series from the Penguins and finish up a three-game homestand with a winning record.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is trying to figure out how to win close games. The Penguins have lost eight one-goal games this season.
“It seems like those are the types of games we’re in night in and night out,” Sullivan told The Tribune-Review. “We haven’t found ways to win those, and that’s what we have to do.”