Penguins, Coyotes facing similar issues ahead of matchup

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Looking at the big picture, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Arizona Coyotes couldn’t be more dissimilar. The Penguins are coming off consecutive Stanley Cup wins. The Coyotes only infrequently win consecutive games.

But, right now, Mike Sullivan of Pittsburgh and Rick Tocchet of Arizona — coaches who shared the same bench last season — are going through very similar problems, even if the talent levels and records of their clubs are far different.

The Penguins (16-14-3), despite all their skills and superstars and superior achievements, have dropped their last three games and four of five, all by one goal. All of a sudden, the talk in Pittsburgh isn’t of a third consecutive Cup parade, but whether the Penguins will make the make the playoffs — they currently occupy the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff position.

“I don’t think we’re rattled,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said following an off-day practice Friday, a day after a 2-1 loss in Las Vegas. “It’s a tough point when you’re generating chances and in close games and you’re finding ways to let them slip away. That’s the way it goes sometimes but, sometimes, it goes the other way.”

Sometimes it doesn’t go your way at all. Ask the Coyotes and Tocchet, an assistant to Sullivan when the Penguins won their second successive Stanley Cup last season.

There almost certainly won’t be any playoffs for the last-place Coyotes (7-22-5), who’ve dropped five in a row and eight of nine. They share some of the Penguins’ current problems, only their issues have lasted all season — there’s not enough balance in their scoring, they constantly give away games at the end and they lack depth.

Tocchet has stayed patient much of the season, but he was clearly agitated following a non-competitive 4-1 loss Thursday to NHL-leading Tampa Bay, which unleashed 46 shots on Arizona goalie Antti Raanta.

Among other things, Tocchet called his team tired, dull, dumb and soft.

“I hate soft plays, I hate soft players and we were soft,” Tocchet said.

Tocchet was softer in his criticism Friday, saying his players were “disappointed” with their effort — “A lot of our guys know we didn’t play well, and our energy level was low.”

But while this stage of the season is critical to the Coyotes only to establish a level of respectability for the rest of the season, this might be the most critical point of this season for the Penguins, period.

They own the same 16-14-3 record they did at this stage of the 2015-16 season, when they went on to win the Stanley Cup. But the difference now is the Penguins’ talent level almost certainly was higher that season — like most Cup winners, they’ve lost valuable role players to free agency (Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen and Nick Bonino, among others) and, last spring, to the expansion draft (goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who beat them Thursday night in Vegas).

And, this time, general manager Jim Rutherford is promising to make changes soon unless the Penguins break out of this current slide, one that has dropped them 13 points behind Tampa Bay in the conference standings.

“Every team in the league goes through ups and downs, and we’re no different,” Sullivan said. “We just have to make sure we do everything to minimize the skid we’re in right now. We need a good effort, a resilient attitude (Saturday) and control what we can to get the result we’re looking for.

“(We) have overcome so many challenges in my tenure here. There’s no reason why we can’t continue to do that.”

Tocchet doesn’t doubt the Penguins will find their way, especially with Sullivan behind the bench.

“Like Tampa, they have high-end talent,” Tocchet said. “They have some of the best players in the world. … The way they’re structured, they can ignite at any time. They’ve won two Stanley Cups back to back and they’re dangerous.”

This will be the second and last game between the teams this season; the Penguins won the first 3-1 in Pittsburgh on Nov. 7 behind a goal and two assists each from Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, some of that high-end talent Tocchet was talking about.

However, the Coyotes have won the last two games between the two teams in Arizona.

Penguins goalie Matt Murray is expected to start again after stopping 24 of 26 shots at Vegas. Tocchet all but said Raanta, who made a career-high 44 saves Thursday, will start again because he wants the goalie taking on a heavy workload following three separate injury layoffs.

Kessel leads the Penguins with 15 goals and 37 points. Crosby, after a slow start, has 13 goals and 32 points after scoring seven goals in his last nine games. Rookie left winger Clayton Keller scored his first goal in 18 games Thursday but still leads the Coyotes with 12 goals.

On Friday, Arizona called up forward Nick Merkley, their top draft pick in 2015. He is expected to make his NHL debut against Pittsburgh after having 12 goals and 24 points in 20 AHL games.