A week ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins still had not lost a game in regulation, and looked fully capable of competing for the Stanley Cup that has eluded them since they won it in 2017.
Or at least of winning a playoff series, a feat they haven’t managed since a year after that.
Of course, there was a lot of hockey remaining — the Penguins surely were aware that the course of a team’s season isn’t necessarily set in the first five games, even if the club goes 4-0-1 then — but management’s decision during the offseason to keep its veteran core intact seemed prescient.
The Penguins weren’t playing flawless hockey, but stellar goaltending and a quick-strike offense were able to negate whatever blemishes developed, and those letdowns and lapses had cost them only a single point through the initial 10 days of 2022-23.
Four humbling and disheartening losses later, however, the Penguins look more like a team likely to contend for a prominent spot in the draft lottery than the franchise’s sixth championship, although it must be remembered that an early-season skid is no more telling or predictive than an early-season surge.
Still, they suddenly have an eye-dropper offense that generated just one goal in each of the past three games. Their penalty-killing has slipped to 28th in the league rankings and their power play isn’t producing to its potential.
The Penguins have plunged to seventh place in the Metropolitan Division, and while the reality is that they are just two points out of first, their place in the standings is troubling and tangible evidence of the trajectory their season currently is on.
Playing without top-six left wingers Jake Guentzel and Jason Zucker hurt, although both returned for the Penguins’ 3-1 loss to the Kraken Saturday, but their absences do not explain, let alone excuse, the team’s miserable showings in Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Seattle.
No, that was a full-team performance, although the role played by some of those core veterans should not be overlooked.
The No. 1 defense pairing of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin performed so poorly that Mike Sullivan separated them at one point. And while plus-minus ratings should not be unduly emphasized, the ones Letang (minus-7) and Dumoulin (minus-6) compiled in the past four games are revealing.
Sidney Crosby is one assist away from becoming the 20th player in league history to record 900 in his career, but doesn’t have one in the past four games, and hasn’t scored a goal since the Oilers game.
Evgeni Malkin had one goal and one assist in the four losses, output that projects to 42 points over an 82-game season. That wouldn’t be much of a return on the Penguins’ recent four-year investment in him.
Sullivan frequently praises the Pittsburgh Penguins’ veteran leadership group, crediting it for helping to lift the team past whatever adversity it might encounter. Those platitudes probably are warranted, although only people inside the locker room truly know what words are said and examples are set during challenging times.
The Penguins are definitely going through one of those, though, and it’s incumbent on the Crosbys and Malkins and Letangs and Dumoulins to show the way out of it.
They can’t do it alone, obviously. That will take nothing less than a 20-man commitment.
But part of the rationale for re-signing free-agents-to-be like Letang and Malkin was the belief that their effort and intangibles could provide a template for their teammates to help them escape difficult situations.
Well, the Pittsburgh Penguins are in one now, and it’s time for the veteran core to validate management’s faith in it.
Which is not to suggest that doing so will be easy.
The Penguins have a travel day Sunday — it presumably will be a rather subdued flight back from the Pacific Northwest — followed by one practice before getting into their third set of back-to-back games in little more than a week.
And that quirk of scheduling isn’t their biggest concern.
On their first game back at home, during which teams returning from long trips often struggle, they have to face Boston Tuesday. The Bruins are 8-1, have won five games in a row and are playing so well that first-year coach Jim Montgomery gave his players this entire weekend off.
Oh, and first-line winger Brad Marchand, who torments the Penguins (and most other opponents), is back in uniform, despite being projected to miss the first two months of the season after undergoing hip surgery. He scored twice in his 2022-23 debut Thursday, so the Penguins should prepare for him to be as effective as he is irritating.
The next night, the Penguins will be in Buffalo, where the Sabres are 5-3 and finally, mercifully, beginning to see the results of a rebuild that nearly dates to the days when their home rink was known as Marine Midland Arena. Which is to say, a long, long time ago.
Whether that will yield a playoff berth for the Sabres next spring remains to be seen.
Conversely, qualifying for the postseason is the lowest setting on the bar of objectives for the Penguins — hey, they’ve done it for 16 years in a row — but getting in is not their birthright.
It has to be earned, and that isn’t easy. While the Pittsburgh Penguins absolutely have the personnel to do that, and probably a lot more, they won’t get there if they can’t get their game back to where it should be.
And the onus is on their veteran core — the one the franchise’s decision-makers determined merited another chance to chase a Cup — to show the way there.