This, the Pittsburgh Penguins said, was progress.
Sure, they failed to protect a three-goal lead. At home, no less.
And yeah, they could have capitalized on a power play in overtime, when a goal would have salved their psyches and salvaged an extra point in the standings.
The hard truth is, under most circumstances and by almost any measure, their 6-5 overtime loss to Boston at PPG Paints Arena Tuesday night would have been deemed a colossal failure.
But when a team is coming off four consecutive losses on the road, playing well enough to get even a single point — even if it should have had two — against a quality opponent apparently is a source of hope.
“That was the best game we played in a while,” Jeff Petry said.
It was not, however, good enough to prevent them from sliding to 4-4-2, which translates to seventh place in the Metropolitan Division.
The Penguins won’t have much time to dwell on their latest disappointment, because they will play in Buffalo Wednesday at 7:38 p.m., but they’re keenly aware that they have to upgrade their play — and re-think their approach to playing with a lead — if they are to have a chance to attain the lofty objectives they’ve set for themselves.
“We’re learning the hard way right now,” Mike Sullivan said. “If we’re going to be the team we want to become, we can’t beat ourselves.”
Too bad, because that’s one of the few things the Penguins have been able to do consistently well since starting the season 4-0-1.
There isn’t much margin for error against a team as accomplished as Boston, whose 9-1 start is the best in franchise history, and the Penguins strained those boundaries while playing with a lead in the latter stages of the game.
They were up, 5-2, late in the second period, and still ahead by two going into the third. But rather than focus on sound puck-management to protect the lead against a team with a quick-strike offense, they stuck to a style that gave the Bruins a chance to get back into the game.
“When you have a two-goal lead going into the third, you have a good opportunity to win,” Sullivan said.
Not good enough, it seems, to overcome some of the lapses in judgment the Penguins had.
“We’re obviously a real skilled team,” Josh Archibald said. “Guys are going to make plays. But I think we just have to pick and choose when we’re going to make those plays.”
Even after Pavel Zacha (11:59) and Taylor Hall (18:43) had gotten third-period goals to force the overtime, the Penguins had a chance to pull out a victory when Evgeni Malkin drew a tripping minor from Boston defenseman Hampus Lindholm at 1:04 of the extra period.
The Penguins, though, were unable to take advantage, leaving them 0-for-4 on power plays for the evening.
“We’re trying to get these (power-play) guys on the same page,” Sullivan said. “They’re very capable guys, when they’re at their best.”
Which hasn’t been very often lately. After going 4-for-10 with the extra man in their first two games, the Penguins are 4-for-29 in the past eight.
And just to rub it in a bit, once his penalty was up, Lindholm got the game-winner when he put a shot behind Tristan Jarry at 3:37 of overtime.
The Pittsburgh Penguins played without top-pairing defenseman Kris Letang, who had been listed as a “game-time decision” because of illness. They also were missing centers Jeff Carter, who was injured at Seattle Saturday, and Teddy Blueger.
Drew O’Connor filled in for Carter between Danton Heinen and Kasperi Kapanen on the third line, while Petry worked in Letang’s spot alongside Brian Dumoulin on the No. 1 pairing.
Despite their personnel issues, the Penguins took a 1-0 lead when Sidney Crosby scored 30 seconds into the opening period, and took a chokehold on the game when Malkin, Archibald, Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell beat Bruins goalie Linus Ullmark in the second.
But Boston made it 5-3 while Petry was serving a hooking minor — “The power-play goal gave them momentum,” Petry said — and pressed throughout the third until it got the goals needed to force overtime.
“We finally got a lead, and we didn’t do a good enough job,” Crosby said.
Nonetheless, he, like most teammates, saw the Pittsburgh Penguins’ performance as an improvement over how they’d been doing recently.
“It was one of our better games, for the most part,” Crosby said.
Perhaps it was.
“We didn’t get the result, but we played a much better game,” Petry said. “I think we can build off this one.”
Maybe, improbably, this defeat will provide a foundation of sorts for them. Or perhaps they will find it to be like trying to build on quicksand.