The Pittsburgh Penguins had lost three games in a row.
They were 2-3 against teams that sat out the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring.
Their power play was threatening to become a cruel oxymoron.
The last thing they needed, it seemed, was to spend 60 minutes with an opponent that was off to a 6-0 start, and was on an NHL-record run of 15 consecutive regular-season victories on the road.
Then again, based on how the Penguins performed during their 4-0 victory against Colorado at PPG Paints Arena Thursday night, perhaps the challenge a club as accomplished as the Avalanche presented was exactly what they needed.
It was, by far, the most impressive performance of the season by the Penguins (3-4). And they did it against a team that was, by far, the most formidable they have faced.
Aside from yet another miserable showing by the power play, which failed to record a shot on goal during the only time Colorado was shorthanded for a full two minutes, pretty much every facet of their game was in synch.
All four lines were involved and effective, the penalty-kill was outstanding against a talent-rich power play and goaltender Tristan Jarry snuffed a number of quality scoring chances that could have altered the course of the game if they’d led to Colorado goals.
The Penguins got an early chance to get a lead when Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon was penalized for slashing at 2:37 of the opening period, but they failed to score, stretching their streak of unsuccessful power plays to 13.
In fact, they did not even manage a shot on Avalanche goalie Alexandar Georgiev when they had the man-advantage.
The Penguins got one just three seconds after MacKinnon’s penalty expired, however, and Reilly Smith put it behind Georgiev from the slot for his third of the season.
Radim Zohorna nearly doubled their lead about five minutes later, but his shot from inside the left circle slammed off the right post after eluding Georgiev.
Colorado, which had five power-play goals in its previous three games, got its first chance with the extra man when Ryan Shea was sent off for hooking at 13:47, but did not generate a shot until Shea had left the box.
Smith struck again at 16:51, as he beat Georgiev from inside the left circle to cap a 2-on-1 break with Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin had the puck and froze defenseman Devon Toews before sliding the puck to Smith for an uncontested shot. The second assist went to Bryan Rust, who forced an Avalanche turnover in the defensive zone before feeding a pass to Malkin to trigger the break.
The Penguins had been outscored, 8-0, during the second period in their previous four games, and Jarry had to make an excellent stop on Fredrik Olofsson about 2 1/2 minutes after the intermission to prevent Colorado from adding to that lopsided stat.
The third line continued its strong play and got a tangible reward six minutes into the second, when Lars Eller backhanded a Zohorna feed into a mostly open net to make it 3-0. The goal was Eller’s first.
Malkin picked up a double-minor for high-sticking Mikko Rantanen at 16:25, and Jarry was forced to make a sensational glove save on Jonathan Drouin from the slot with 100 seconds left in the second of those two penalties to preserve the Pittsburgh Penguins’ three-goal advantage heading into the third.
Jarry made that stop while using a stick he had been given by Kris Letang after Jarry’s had broken.
The penalty-killers came through again after Noel Acciari was sent off for delay of game at 7:05 of the third, and Sidney Crosby put the game out of reach 90 seconds after Acciari left the penalty box.
Jake Guentzel stole the puck near the Colorado blue line and gave it to Crosby, who threw a shot past Giorgiev from the high slot for his fourth of the season.
The Penguins finished the game with a man-advantage, as Avalanche center Ryan Johansen was called for slashing with 35.3 seconds left in regulation.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have called off their practice, which was scheduled for Friday at noon at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, and will instead conduct an off-ice workout.