The Pittsburgh Penguins are closing in on the midpoint of their season.
They might already have reached its pivotal point.
Now, it would be unusual for a team that sees itself as a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup to have the course of its season determined before New Year’s Day.
Not as rare, however, as a team that sees itself as a legitimate contender for the Cup being embarrassed, 5-1, by a relatively ordinary opponent one night, then squandering a four-goal lead in what would become a 5-4 overtime defeat — on home ice, no less — 24 hours later.
Which is why their response when New Jersey visits PPG Paints Arena tonight is so critical, will be so revelatory about whether this team, as currently constituted, truly is capable of competing for the lofty objectives it has set for itself.
The tangible impact of how the Devils game plays out is obvious. The Penguins have slipped into a tie with the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders for fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, and only the top three clubs in each division are guaranteed a place in the postseason.
Win in regulation tonight, and the Penguins will move into a tie with New Jersey for second in the Metro.
Clearly, with five teams clustered within a two-point range, every point earned — or lost — over the remaining three-plus months of the regular season will have the potential to be decisive when the playoff field is set in mid-April.
But what the New Jersey game tells us about the Penguins’ intangibles — about their mental makeup and toughness, their willingness to sacrifice and compete — figures to be much more telling about what they’re capable of accomplishing in 2022-23.
That’s because, if being humbled twice in 24 hours — as the Penguins surely had to be by being no-shows for a 5-1 loss on Long Island Tuesday, then blowing a 4-0 lead at home against Detroit Wednesday — isn’t enough to get this group to focus and commit to performing at the highest possible level, there’s no reason to think it will have the gumption and character needed to thrive in the high-stakes games coming as the season progresses.
At the moment, it’s fair to wonder if the Pittsburgh Penguins really do.
Their response early in the Red Wings game should have been encouraging. The Penguins weren’t as dominant as their 4-0 lead at the first intermission suggests, but they played like a group whose pride had been bruised by what happened on Long Island.
It was the reaction that could be expected of a veteran team intent on competing for a championship.
What happened over the two-plus periods that followed was not.
And it is why the New Jersey game has such outsized importance for one being played at the end of the calendar year.
The Penguins routinely sabotaged themselves as the Detroit game moved along. It was evident fairly early in the second period that the momentum they had generated during the first 20 minutes never made it back out of the locker room.
It became apparent that the Penguins were willing to give away all they had earned during the opening period; the question was just how much of it Detroit would be able to take.
Turned out, quite a bit.
It’s not that the Pittsburgh Penguins don’t know how to protect a multiple-goal lead, even though that’s been a recurring issue this season.
We’re talking about a veteran team with an accomplished core and a details-oriented coach in Mike Sullivan whose philosophy is built around players consistently doing the little things that eventually add up to big accomplishments.
The Penguins were well aware of how they had to play to protect their lead over the Red Wings. They just didn’t put in the effort to do it.
They got lazy and sloppy, and ultimately gave Detroit the idea that the unthinkable — that it could steal a point or two out of a road game in which it trailed by four goals — was quite possible.
Which it proved to be.
Now, every 82-game season is going to have highs and lows. Some exhilarating victories, at least a few disheartening defeats.
But that one was different, mostly because of the loss that preceded it.
And that is why the way things play out at PPG Paints Arena tonight will reveal so much about whether this team has the mental makeup to achieve some of the things of which its talent level looks to be capable.
Oh, it has some flaws — the third line has been a liability, Brian Dumoulin is having another subpar season, etc. — but so do most teams in any league with a salary-cap system.
The Pittsburgh Penguins also have the skill and veteran guile to be a factor in the playoffs next spring. But only if they also possess the drive and focus and pride that success at this level demands.
They’ll have an opportunity to prove that tonight. Fail, and they might not get another.