DOWN THE DRAIN: Blackhawks Stun Penguins, 5-2
The Pittsburgh Penguins have lost 41 games this season.
More than a few of those defeats have stung.
A lot, in some cases.
But none could have hurt nearly as much as the one that has all but officially eliminated them from contention for a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Mostly because it was as inexplicable as it was inexcusable.
Chicago, which has spent most of the season competing for nothing more lofty than its spot in the draft lottery, stunned the Penguins, 5-2, at PPG Paints Arena Tuesday night.
The Penguins played a significant portion of the game with no apparent urgency or emotion, even though a victory — at home, against one of the NHL’s true bottom-feeders — would have given them a chokehold on a spot in the postseason for the 17th consecutive year.
“Anybody can beat anybody in this league,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “That’s the reality.”
The loss ended the Penguins’ chances of earning the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference playoff field and leaves them one point behind the New York Islanders for the second wild card.
Because New York owns the regulation-victories tiebreaker against the Penguins, the Islanders can wrap up a berth with anything other than a regulation loss in their final game, Wednesday against Montreal at UBS Arena.
The Penguins (40-31-10) got a totally unexpected gift when Washington upset the Islanders, 5-2, Monday, but apparently decided to re-gift the playoff berth that could have been theirs to the Islanders.
Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, who missed the previous 14 games because of an unspecified lower-body injury, returned to the Penguins’ lineup and was paired with Jan Rutta while Alex Nylander, summoned from their farm team in Wilkes-Barre on emergency recall, played right wing on the third line.
Although the Penguins were well aware of the stakes in this game — hey, it was all over the internet — it wasn’t reflected in their play for most of the first period.
The Blackhawks — who had played and traveled the night before and are anchored near the bottom of the overall standings — outshot them, 13-9, during those 20 minutes and might have had a slight edge in play.
Sidney Crosby probably had the Penguins’ best scoring chance about four minutes in, when Bryan Rust sprung him behind the Chicago defense, but he was unable to get a backhander past goalie Petr Mrazek.
Tristan Jarry had a strong showing, with his best stop probably coming on a shot from the slot by Blackhawks defenseman Seth Jones about a minute before the intermission.
Both teams had a power play during the opening period. Neither scored.
The Penguins’ second chance with the extra man came 57 seconds into the second period and, while they generated some sustained pressure, they were unable to score.
The Penguins killed a hooking minor assessed to Nylander at 5:45, but 19 seconds after he left the penalty box, Chicago defenseman Connor Murphy put a shot through traffic and past Jarry from the right point to make it 1-0.
Crosby had a chance to pull the Penguins even when he charged to the net and deflected a pass from Jake Guentzel with about seven minutes left in the period, but Mrzaek stopped him.
Chicago defenseman Caleb Jones was guilty of two penalties in the first four minutes of the third period, and the Penguins exploited the second of those power plays for a game-tying goal.
Evgeni Malkin scored it at 5:28, steering a Rickard Rakell pass by Mrazek for his 27th of the season. Jeff Petry got the second assist.
The tie didn’t last long, however, as Buddy Robinson beat Jarry from between the hash marks at 10:22 to put Chicago up, 2-1, and Andreas Athanasiou nudged a puck past Jarry while standing behind the goal line at 10:48 for what proved to be the game-winner.
Tyler Johnson got an empty-net goal for Chicago at 18:36, and Danton Heinen swept a rebound past Mrazek with 37.4 seconds left, Mackenzie Entwistle closed out the scoring with an empty-netter with 22.4 seconds to go.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are scheduled to practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex at noon Wednesday before traveling to Columbus for the regular-season finale Thursday against the Blue Jackets.