The Pittsburgh Penguins’ 5-1 loss on Long Island Tuesday night was their most disappointing — and difficult to take — of the season.
For all of one day, at least.
Fact is, their 5-4 overtime defeat by Detroit Wednesday — at home, after the Penguins built a 4-0 lead — didn’t just sting, the way their loss to the New York Islanders 24 hours earlier had.
“This one hurts, definitely, a lot worse,” Jason Zucker said. “We can’t give up leads like that, especially in this league. Especially this time of year.”
The immediate damage caused by the loss was obvious: It cost them a precious point in the Metropolitan Division standings, where they are tied with Washington for third place.
What remains to be seen is whether these back-to-back setbacks — so different in some ways, so similar in others — will have an impact that extends beyond the short term, after-shocks that reverberate for weeks to come.
“We have to be better,” Zucker said. “We have to hold each other accountable. We have to be better, individually. We have to be better as a team, as lines. All six guys on the ice.”
Whether the Penguins find a way to accomplish all of that should be evident soon enough, since New Jersey, which is second in the Metro, is scheduled to visit PPG Paints Arena Friday at 7:08 p.m.
“We have to find answers, obviously,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “We have to press here. We have an important one coming Friday. Obviously, it’s going to be a big test. Another divisional opponent. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves.”
Twenty minutes into the game against the Red Wings, there was little reason to believe the Penguins would have to be concerned about anything of the sort.
They chased Ville Husso, Detroit’s starting goalie, from the game after one period by scoring on four of 12 shots, as Drew O’Connor and Jeff Carter staked the Penguins to a 2-0 lead, and Zucker doubled their advantage by getting two more in a span of just over five minutes.
But the Penguins looked disjointed for much of the 40 minutes of regulation that remained, as well as the 2:13 of overtime that lapsed before Red Wings defenseman Jake Walman administered the coup de grace.
It was an entirely fitting ending, considering that the Pittsburgh Penguins had shown the killer instinct of a heavily sedated puppy after going up by four goals. They didn’t just dare Detroit to get back into the game; they invited the Red Wings to.
“We stopped playing, stopped playing our game” Zucker said. “We let them back in the game. We let them off the hook.”
Although the Penguins didn’t dominate the opening period to the extent that the score suggested — Detroit actually had a 14-12 edge in shots then — they obviously had a chokehold on the game.
All they had to do was not give it away.
Which turned out to be way too much to expect.
“They pushed hard in the second and we didn’t do a good job of giving it back to them,” Dumoulin said. “We have to find a better way to respond there, in the second and the third. Especially off of a great first.”
That big lead melted away over the next couple of hours — it likely would have happened quicker, if not for some strong work by goalie Casey DeSmith — until the Penguins were left with only a single point and a puddle of disappointment.
And while they have shown at times this season just how good they can be, this game was a reminder of what can happen when their focus and intensity wane. A reminder that qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs for a 17th consecutive year is not a birthright for them.
“It’s not good enough,” Zucker said. “We have to be better.”
There’s little question about that. How the Pittsburgh Penguins respond to what they did — and what’s before them — is what matters most now.
“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Dumoulin said. “We have to keep working. We have to get better.”
If only so that the defeats don’t get even worse.