Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby’s Penguins are giving up 3.2 goals per game, the ninth-highest goals against rate in the NHL. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

This year’s Pittsburgh Penguins don’t look like anything like the team that won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships the past two seasons. The shootout win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night was the squad’s fourth victory over the past 10 games, pushing its record to an underwhelming 19-16-3 (41 points) with a minus-13 goal differential. If the season ended today, the Penguins would miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06.

We have not played to the level of our expectation at this point,” coach Mike Sullivan told Sam Werner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Saturday night after a 4-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks. “Everyone in our room knows it — our coaching staff as well. We all have to be better.”

Pittsburgh’s problems extend from one side of the ice to the other. The Penguins are scoring 2.8 goals per game, fewer than they had in each of the past two seasons, while giving up 3.2 goals per game, the ninth-highest goals against per contest.

You could blame some of the dismal performance on bad luck. After adjusting for score effects — teams that play with a lead tend to go into a defensive shell, while those that trail try desperately to put pucks on net — and special teams, the Penguins are converting just 5.9 percent of their shots at even strength into goals, the worst rate in the NHL. Defensively, they have an adjusted save percentage of .898, also lowest in the league. In other words, if the Penguins didn’t have bad luck, they would have no luck at all.

The offense should rebound. Eventually. Pittsburgh is creating 11.9 even-strength scoring chances per 60 minutes from the high-danger areas of the ice such as the slot and near the crease, eighth-most in the NHL, but has converted a league-low rate of those chances into goals (1.0 per 60). The Penguins converted at an average or above-average rate in each of the past two seasons.

Penguins High-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes High-danger goals
per 60 minutes
High-danger shooting percentage
2015-16 12.0 1.6 13%
2016-17 12.8 1.8 14%
2017-18 11.8 1.0 8%
NHL average     13%

Looking at it another way: Based on the shot location and angle and whether it was a second-chance opportunity, the Penguins should be scoring 2.4 goals per 60 minutes after adjusting for score effects and special teams. Instead, they are scoring just 1.8 goals per 60. Only the San Jose Sharks have a bigger gap between expected and actual goals.

Team Goals scored
per 60 minutes
Expected goals scored
per 60 minutes
Sharks 1.80 2.52 -0.72
Penguins 1.78 2.42 -0.64
Hurricanes 2.14 2.54 -0.40
Coyotes 1.60 1.96 -0.36
Flames 2.18 2.47 -0.29

Sidney Crosby is particularly snake bit. With him on the ice, the team should score close to three goals per 60 minutes based on shot quality; instead, the Penguins have produced just 1.3 per 60. No forward has seen a bigger discrepancy between expected and actual goals and, perhaps not unexpectedly, two of the other Pittsburgh forwards who round out the top 10 in differential are two of Crosby’s most frequent linemates: Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary.

The defense might be trickier to get back on track. The Penguins are allowing the seventh-most scoring chances against at even strength, both overall (29.7 per 60 minutes) and from the high-danger areas (11.6), which is why their even-strength save percentage ranks at the bottom of the NHL. Among the five defensemen who have played with Pittsburgh in each of the past three seasons, all have seen an increase in expected goals against per 60 minutes at even strength in 2017-18 — and that includes Kris Letang, long considered the team’s best blue-liner.

Expected goals against per 60 minutes 2015-16 and 2016-17 2017-18
Justin Schultz 2.4 2.8
Ian Cole 2.2 2.6
Kris Letang 2.3 2.5
Olli Maatta 2.2 2.4
Brian Dumoulin 2.3 2.3

An unlucky offense coupled with a porous defense doesn’t paint an optimistic picture for Pittsburgh — particularly in an ultracompetitive division. According to Hockey Reference’s season simulator, the Penguins are projected to finish the 2017-18 campaign with 88 points, good for seventh place in the Metropolitan Division, slightly ahead of the last-place Philadelphia Flyers. They are being given a 25 percent chance to make the playoffs, with a majority of that coming in the form of a wild-card spot (17 percent), but that could evaporate if they don’t find a way to improve their play on at least one part of the ice. If they continue to struggle on offense and defense, all hope for this season will quickly slip away.