TORONTO — There was a lifeless specter in the Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday night. It wasn’t the empty arena, but the Pittsburgh Penguins, who appeared to have no pulse. No heartbeat. No fire. It was a flatline 4-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in a pivotal game after the Penguins surged to a 3-1 lead.
Now, the Penguins will justifiably face elimination before even making it to the actual NHL playoffs.
Something has gone wrong. The Pittsburgh Penguins have just one win in their last seven playoff games. It’s not entirely fair to include 2018 because they won Round One and a couple of games in Round Two, but they lost the last two games to the Washington Capitals, which makes them 1-8 in their previous nine.
The win total is as shocking as the lack of urgency in their game.
“Overall, I think we were on the wrong side of the puck a little too much,” head coach Mike Sullivan said after the Game 3 loss. “We’ve got to make sure we defend hard. We create some of our offense off of our defense.”
The frantic desperation which most teams unleash when trailing in a playoff game has been replaced in Pittsburgh with a calm complacency and talk of being a veteran team that knows how to win.
Except apparently, they don’t. The New York Islanders humbled them with a four-game sweep in Round One last year. This season was supposed to be the rebound year. Rested and ready!
Now, the 12th seeded Montreal Canadiens are one game away from spanking the obtuse Penguins and kicking them out of the bubble, too.
The real and honest question is: Do the Penguins really want it anymore? I mean, REALLY want it?
It sure doesn’t look like it.
“I think we just made a few mistakes. This time of year, those are magnified, and (the Montreal Canadiens) are opportunistic,” Sidney Crosby said in an oddly accepting way. “They’re waiting for those mistakes, and they capitalize on them. We might have been guilty of getting too loose with the lead there, and that can change pretty quick.”
Might have been guilty?
There was an air of calm and acceptance on Wednesday night. In the tone of voices and body language, there was the same sort of denial, and shoulder shrugging which sprang forth in the New York Islanders beatdown of the Penguins last spring.
Don’t worry. The Pittsburgh Penguins are Stanley Cup champions. But, they’re not anymore, are they?
Everyone, including the Penguins, assumes they’re Stanley Cup contenders and can beat anyone. Everyone, including the Penguins, believes their core of generational talent will carry them through. The Penguins had 10 players from their last Stanley Cup team on the ice Wednesday night as they took a 3-1 lead then relaxed for a 4-3 loss.
The pushback, the urgency, the “sticktoitiveness,” or even desperation wasn’t there. The Penguins had eight shots in the third period. Those qualities were ever-present on the Penguins Stanley Cup runs, and have been absent since.
I remember vividly standing in the tiny visiting dressing room at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., on March 1, 2016. The Penguins blew a third period lead and were so furious with themselves that Sidney Crosby spoke through gritted teeth, and Patric Hornqvist was so disgusted he just kept shaking his head as he spoke.
The tone in their voice was unmistakable; the anger and disgust were palpable.
The Penguins lost once more in regulation before steamrolling through the playoffs, too. Those steely eyes were again present when the Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was injured and lost for the season in February 2017. The Penguins gritted through another Stanley Cup run with heroic team performances, seemingly at will.
Despite a roster packed full of talent, including Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Letang, they are struggling. Despite Jake Guentzel being a 40-goal scorer and Bryan Rust setting a career-high with 27 goals and GM Jim Rutherford’s acquisition of Patrick Marleau to provide speed and accountability, the Penguins have displayed none of the emotion or urgency which made them successful.
Wednesday night, Crosby pushed hard in the third period. Letang seemed to be doing his best, too. But the Penguins went gently into that good night.
There was no pushback. No fire. No anger. Not even from Mike Sullivan.
“You have to give (Montreal) credit. They played hard. They defended hard. We had our moments, but we couldn’t find a way to score in the third,” Sullivan said.
It’s tough to find a way to score with only eight shots. The Penguins deflated after Montreal defenseman Jeff Petry scored the eventual game-winning goal early in the third period. Even without fans in the seats, the exhale was noticeable in the arena.
The snap and energy which the Penguins had to start the third period were gone, and they stayed gone until the final minutes. That’s not the Pittsburgh Penguins team that won Stanley Cups. Or a team that could win a Stanley Cup.
Those “loose moments” were very loose.
While fans howled at Jack Johnson for the Montreal first goal, they missed the glaring fact that Montreal defenseman Shea Weber was alone in front of the Penguins goal. That means as Montreal transitioned to offense (from a Johnson blue line turnover), the Montreal defenseman so badly beat the Penguins forwards up the ice he had not one, but two uncontested shots on Matt Murray from feet away.
Where were the Penguins third line of Sam Lafferty, Patric Hornqvist, or Patrick Marleau? Any of the three could have covered Weber, who pinched deep.
Sullivan often used the term “swagger” last season. He pushed his team to gain its swagger to be confident and aggressive. Swagger is also earned. These Penguins seem to have skipped the swagger and gone straight to … assumption?
The Penguins didn’t show the prerequisite heart in Game One, either. Their task was to get to the net to disrupt Montreal goalie Carey Price. Instead, the Penguins tiptoed, en masse, towards the net, and Price saw nearly every shot.
Wednesday night, the Penguins staked themselves a three-goal lead with some nifty power-play work and a hustling goal by Teddy Blueger, assisted by Zach Aston-Reese but set up by a Brandon Tanev, who outworked a defenseman for the puck.
The Penguins were self-satisfied at that point.
The team will have one more chance to rescue their season and, quite frankly, their championship window. A second straight humbling playoff loss in the opening series will indicate the window has slammed shut.
It’s a long way from the championship fire the team had. Do the Pittsburgh Penguins even want it anymore?