BUFFALO — This isn’t just a slump for the Pittsburgh Penguins anymore.
It’s a recurring nightmare.
Their 6-3 loss to Buffalo Wednesday night at KeyBank Center wasn’t simply another defeat; it was the latest in a series of games in which they were unable to protect a multiple-goal lead.
Forget Groundhog Day; their season is becoming more like living through The Exorcist on an endless loop.
With a slightly more scary ending.
And the Penguins in one of the lead roles.
Which is more than can be said about them in the Eastern Conference playoff race at the moment, considering that they’re 4-5-2 and marooned in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division.
The Penguins’ inability to protect a 3-1 lead in the third period against the Sabres led to their sixth consecutive defeat, and marked the second time in two nights that an opponent rallied from a multiple-goal deficit in the final period to beat them.
Tuesday, Boston overcame a 5-2 deficit en route to a 6-5 overtime victory.
And those two games weren’t isolated incidents. They have squandered leads of two or more goals in four of their first 11 games, including three in which they were up by two in the third period.
That’s become a nasty habit, and there’s little reason to believe it will be easy to break.
The details of the latest implosion almost don’t matter, but they go something like this:
After two reasonably solid periods and a goal by Jake Guentzel eight seconds into the third, the Pittsburgh Penguins seemed to have a pretty good grip on this game. At least until Buffalo ran off unanswered goals by Tage Thompson. And Victor Olofsson (two). And Alex Tuch. And Kyle Okposo.
“This one stings,” Mike Sullivan said. “Without a doubt.”
Stings? It probably feels more like having a molten-hot nail driven into their corneas.
This is a team whose lineup is loaded with accomplished veterans, the kind of guys who can reasonably be expected to close out games when the opportunity presents itself. Instead, the Penguins are playing like late-game leads have been coated with baby oil.
Which is to say, they’re all but impossible to hold on to.
“It’s disappointing,” Crosby said. “We’ve had a lead here the last couple of nights and just haven’t been able to finish it off.”
The Penguins are 0-5-1 in their past six games, just the second time they’ve gone six games without a victory since Sullivan took over as coach in December, 2015.
It looked as if they would pull out of their skid Wednesday night, after Jason Zucker staked them to a 1-0 lead in the first period and Josh Archibald put them up by two before J.J. Peterka beat Casey DeSmith late in the second period to get the Sabres on the board.
Guentzel countered that goal when play resumed in the third, however — “It’s big to get that one, at the start of the period like that,” Crosby said — and the Penguins seemed to be in a pretty good position.
For a few minutes, anyway. But Tage Thompson scored for Buffalo at 3:21, and the Sabres’ surge didn’t end until the third period did.
At which point Buffalo was celebrating and the Penguins, as usual, were looking for ways to explain what seemed to be almost inexplicable.
“You never want to give up a two-goal lead in the third,” Guentzel said.
Of course not. No matter how often the Penguins do it.
But there’s nothing they can do to change the outcome of any of the past six games. The focus has to be on not letting the streak swell to seven.
“There’s no secret in a situation like this,” Crosby said. “It just comes down to finding a way and being determined. … We can’t sit around and feel sorry for ourselves.”
Sullivan was rather subdued after the game, but said the formula for restoring the Pittsburgh Penguins’ confidence and swagger isn’t complicated.
“It just takes a little success,” he said. “It starts with one shift, one goal, a good period. A power-play goal. A blocked shot. A penalty-kill. I think it boils down to a lot of little things that add up to winning games.
“That’s where our focus needs to be. It needs to be on the process. We can’t get overwhelmed by the circumstance here, because we haven’t won in a handful of games. We just have to make sure we stay in the moment, focus on the process. That’s what’s going to give us the best opportunity to dig our way out of it.”