The Penguins host the Calgary Flames on Monday night. And — brace yourselves for this — it’s possible the Penguins could (gasp) lose.
I know. That was tough to read.
But I just got off the phone with the league office. The NHL informs me that, yes, within the letter of its bylaws, the potential exists for the Penguins to lose to Calgary.
I’ll give you a moment to collect yourselves, because what’s coming next is even worse.
The Penguins’ next three games are against Philadelphia, Toronto and Dallas. Each of those teams is in a playoff slot. Hence, the Penguins might lose one or two of those challenges as well.
Based on the reaction to the hockey club’s recently concluded losing streak, should that hypothetical occur, “Pens-mageddon” might be upon us.
Honestly, I get why people were alarmed at what they saw in those three games around the trade deadline. The Penguins were awful. Criticism of the results was warranted.
In a vacuum, fans and media blistering Matt Hunwick or Carter Rowney’s play, the special teams, the back-up goaltending and the still-evolving line combinations in the wake of Derick Brassard’s arrival are all valid points of discussion.
The Penguins’ Derick Brassard celebrates his first goal with the team against the Islanders on Saturday, March 3, 2018. (AP)
Where reaction to Penguins’ recent dry spell was baffling to me, though, was how much projecting forward was taking place. I was puzzled by doomsday narratives that quickly were spun:
• Jim Rutherford irreparably damaged the team by acquiring Brassard via trading Ian Cole.
• Trading for Brassard was a forced move that would throw off structure and chemistry.
• The Penguins’ bottom-pair defensemen and fourth-line wings were such an anchor that even the talent-packed top of the roster couldn’t overcome them.
• Goaltenders Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith were utterly incapable of keeping the Penguins afloat until Matt Murray got healthy.
These panicked responses simply were ignoring common logic. For example, if Rutherford hadn’t acquired Brassard, what would prove to be a bigger issue: the absence of a second center capable of scoring if Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin get hurt, or the absence of a fifth defenseman?
Recent history is being ignored as well. I liked Ian Cole a lot, too. However, this is a team that lost Kris Letang in 2017 and still won the Stanley Cup. Cole’s departure isn’t close to being as big a blow as that.
Indeed, the Penguins lost their first three games after the trade deadline. So what? How quickly we forget. They lost the first four games of Mike Sullivan’s tenure. Should they have fired him before the fifth?
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan gives instructions as a young fan covers his ears during overtime against the Islanders on Saturday. (AP)
In 2013, after the Penguins acquired a slew of players at the deadline, including Jarome Iginla, they lost two of their first three games. That was followed by a seven-game winning streak and two playoff round victories before losing to Boston in the Eastern Conference final.
The Penguins lost their first two games after acquiring Marian Hossa in 2008, then wound up in the Cup Final. Phil Kessel had just two multiple-point games in his first two-and-a-half months as a Penguin.
Things have gone pretty well for him since.
As of March 5, 2016, Nick Bonino had a meager three goals in his first Penguins season. Carl Hagelin didn’t score a goal until his ninth game with the Penguins.
How did they turn out? These things need a little time to jell.
Meanwhile, Brassard already scored his first goal in Pittsburgh, and the Pens stopped the bleeding with an overtime win against the Islanders on Saturday.
I guess Crosby is the best player in the world again, Rutherford is a genius again and the Penguins are going to win the Cup again now?
Since the dawn of the Mario Lemieux era, Pittsburgh has turned into an enthusiastic hockey town. Yet, the hockey fan base still applies a football fan mentality to the Penguins at this time of year.
A three- or four-game losing streak for the Steelers induces hysteria because you have only 16 occasions to react. In hockey, you’ve got 82. A three-game bad patch is a blip.
In fact, until the Steelers finish, some fringe hockey fans don’t do much reacting to the Penguins at all until March. Perhaps their voices are the ones creating the din since they haven’t been paying attention to how good the team was prior to this rough stretch.
So to them, and anyone else, I say: Murray will be back. Brassard will fit in. Sully will figure out way around the bottom-pair defense and the fourth-line wing spots.
Save your angst over losing streaks in March. Let it out if that happens in the playoffs.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.