By virtue of the flukiest of goals credited to Jake Guentzel, the Pittsburgh Penguins narrowly avoided their second shutout of the season on Wednesday but were nevertheless soundly defeated by the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-1. Going by expected goals it was Pittsburgh’s worst loss of the season thus far, but if you followed the game you probably would have known that anyway.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Penguins didn’t really start to wake up until a little more than halfway through the contest, by which point the Lightning were already up 2-0. Only after Tampa scored with just under three minutes left to play in the second period did Pittsburgh really start to get somewhat serious, but by then the psychological damage had clearly been done to everyone on and behind the bench. Mike Sullivan threw the even strength lines into a blender, the power play units were broken up, but none of it mattered. The Penguins’ power play failed four more times and now they’re up to 0/33 over their last twelve games. If there are such things as hockey gods, they are probably toying with us at this point. It’s a bad situation.
The perpetual optimists in the room will point to the calendar and try to remind us all that there’s sixty-odd games left on the schedule, including tonight’s against the second-in-the-Atlantic-Division Florida Panthers, and then to the standings which show Pittsburgh still just five points away from second place in the Metropolitan Division, dangling tantalizingly in front of our faces as if it were a carrot on a stick. And the truth of the matter is that those of us who have watched this team for decades know that no matter how late the hour, victory can still be snatched from the jaws of defeat. Twice in Sidney Crosby’s and Evgeni Malkin’s careers have the Penguins changed head coaches midseason and ended up carrying around Lord Stanley’s trophy come mid-June. The Panthers themselves squeaked into the playoffs last season and were Eastern Conference champions.
Right now it’s hard to tell if there’s a silver lining to these Pittsburgh Penguins or if it’s all gray. As usual one could consider the fact that the Penguins have a bunch of injured players out (including now Bryan Rust and narrowly not Kris Letang) and that alone would disrupt the team. But I recall many times over the years when people wanted to award the Jack Adams to Mike Sullivan because the team was somehow able to stay afloat (or even be better) with a bunch of key guys out of the lineup. Where is that magic now? Pittsburgh could definitely use some right now, but there doesn’t appear to be much hope for it. It’s starting to get to that point in the regular season when one might wonder if it would be better for the Penguins to cut their losses and shoot for the bottom rather than the top.
Unfortunately this is not a team which is built for losing; acquiring Erik Karlsson was indication enough from Kyle Dubas that he expected this team to compete for the Stanley Cup in spring, even if most of the rest of his transactions didn’t really agree with that. He smartly hedged his bets on the Karlsson trade by protecting the 2024 first round draft pick he sent to San Jose if the pick lands in the top ten (becoming an unprotected first in 2025 if that somehow occurs), but realistically the only way Pittsburgh is keeping that pick is if misfortune hits them extremely hard, like if Crosby, Karlsson, Guentzel, or Tristan Jarry suffer season-ending injuries (knock on wood). They’re not going to tank their way back to the bottom of the League, and the sooner we all acknowledge that, the sooner we can accept that the possibility of mediocrity is a realistic if wholly unpalatable condition for the Penguins. In these circumstances, I’m not sure which is worse: having a talented team with mediocrity as the floor and no realistic chance of winning the championship, or with mediocrity as the ceiling.