(TORONTO, ON) — The Pittsburgh Penguins players and head coach Mike Sullivan expressed optimism on Sunday. The team felt they had a good practice with good pace and urgency. As players, they haven’t discussed or thought about seven straight playoff game losses, which began in the final games of their 2018 Round Two loss to the Washington Capitals and continued with their 3-2 OT loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.
The attempt was to make the 1-0 series deficit to 12th seed Montreal seem to be business as usual. It was just one game. It was only one loss.
“(The playoff losing streak) isn’t something we haven’t even thought about or talked about,” Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin said on Sunday. “Right now, we lost Game 1. We’re trying to learn where we get better in that game, and we’re onto Game Two.”
Understand the importance of Game 2 on Monday night for the Penguins. From 1980-1986, when the NHL used a best-of-five format in the first round of divisional series, teams that won the first game won 82% of the series. Teams that won the first two games were 55-1.
And everything will change if the Pittsburgh Penguins lose Game 2 and the series. Everything from the Penguins standing as a Stanley Cup contender, fan expectations (and ticket sales), to potential changes in the lineup.
The playoff losing streak becomes relevant if they lose Game 2. The Penguins haven’t found a way to win when it matters in a long time. They lost Game 1 in overtime to the New York Islanders. They hit a post, which numerous players, including Sidney Crosby, mentioned later. If only that had gone in? Instead, they were swept out in four straight by gritty New York, which was then swept by Carolina in the following round.
“When the puck drops tonight, we’re just going to have to make sure we stay in the moment,” head coach Mike Sullivan said Monday. “I think that’s an important part of being successful at this time of year, is making sure you don’t dwell on too many things that happen in the past.
The Penguins were close in Game 1 against Montreal, too. Conor Sheary had a penalty shot in the final minutes of regulation. If only he had put his shot on net. If only the Penguins had converted their 5v3 power play or Montreal goalie Carey Price wasn’t so great.
If only Kris Letang were healthy in the 2018 Round 2 series, too.
The best Penguins hockey in the 2018-19 season arrived in March when injuries decimated the team. The Penguins’ best hockey this season was the first four months when, again, injuries crippled the organization.
The coincidence is too much to ignore. Together, this team has underperformed, underachieved, and failed to adhere to its successful formula.
“Sometimes, I wish I could convince us when we have a full lineup to play with the same level of simplicity. Because I do think that’s when our team is at its best,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said in February.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins lose this series, they will have failed to win a playoff series in two seasons. They will have been unable to come close to the objectives set forth and will have spent a significant chunk of their future in trades to bring players such as Jason Zucker.
And they probably will have failed to adhere to Sullivan’s urging to return to that level of simplicity. Why would a team continue on the same path when hope is spent but not rewarded?
On paper, the team is one of the best in the NHL, but lose to another upstart underdog and the championship window will be shut. Sure, you can say with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the team always has a chance! How dare you!
But the reality will be too great to ignore for all but the deepest rose-colored glasses. There have been too many “if only’s” and far too few results over the past few seasons. Lose, and the championship run is over.
Winners find a way to win. And so, the Penguins players will focus on Game 2 against Montreal. Discussing or dwelling upon the history and the magnitude of the situation will not serve them well.
However, management and GM Jim Rutherford should take a different view. The trends of the last three seasons have been steadily downward, at least when the full roster is together.
Now, don’t be silly. Crosby, Malkin, Sullivan, and probably Kris Letang are not in danger of sweeping changes. Nor is Jake Guentzel. None are at risk of not being Penguins next season or anytime soon unless they choose a different path. Sullivan won’t be fired for another loss, but honest questions will need to be asked of everyone.
History was already against the Pittsburgh Penguins finding the pay streak for a third championship act. By next season Crosby, Malkin, and Letang will all be in their mid-30s. If they can’t do it now, they won’t do it later.
Lose to the Montreal Canadiens, and it is over. And everything will change.