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Looking back on the 2003-04 Pens, as the Sabres close in on their losing streak

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The last team to lose 18 straight games before the Sabres currently was the “X-Generation” Penguins

Penguins v Maple Leafs

The Buffalo Sabres tied a record no one wants to, losing their 18th straight game a couple of nights ago. The only other team in NHL history in the last 25 years to lose that many games was our very own 2003-04 Penguins who went 0-17-1 from January-February 2003.

The good old days. The X-Generation.

There was a recent thread on twitter about how distraught this would have been in the social media era to lose so much, but back then while living through it, I never felt the same. Everyone knew the Pens were bad that year and going to be bad. Mario Lemieux’s injuries limited him to only 10 games.

Instead, at the time, my memory wasn’t really being distraught with the losses piling up. It wasn’t a fun time or season, but we found glimmers of hope in players like Morozov, Malone and Dick Tarnstrom and Milan Kraft who tried really hard and showcased flashes of talent in between the mistakes and tough times.

Really, with the threat of a lockout looming and the struggles Lemieux and his ownership partners were having at securing the funding needed to build a new arena in Pittsburgh, those were the big heavy clouds hanging overhead. The losses on the ice were tough, but the Pens at least had some young players who put in an effort. They just weren’t good enough and didn’t have the stars or a good enough defensive structure or goaltending to win very much.

Going back to 2004, it’s remarkable just how different it was. The #71 young forward wasn’t Evgeni Malkin, it was Konstantin Koltsov. My how things have changed!

The feeling of not being able to have anything break Pittsburgh’s way from the fall of 2001-04 continued off the ice. The Pens finished with the worst record in the league that year, but couldn’t even win the lottery draft (they lost pretty much everything else that year, so it was only fitting). But they got the second pick to take Evgeni Malkin. That worked out OK, and history would have been a lot different had Pittsburgh actually won and gotten the chance to select Alex Ovechkin.

But the Penguin players on February 25th 2004 weren’t worried about Ovechkin or the next wave of youth like Ryan Whitney and a Marc-Andre Fleury — they just wanted to win a game. And win they finally did.

Down 3-1 on the road to the Phoenix (not Arizona) Coyotes, Pittsburgh rallied back that night in the second period with goals from Ryan Malone and Aleksey Morozov. Then, in overtime, the Pens finally did it. Just 1:48 into the extra frame, Ric Jackman scored and the Pens ended their 18 game losing streak.

Here was the lineup that night, it’s a lot of blasts from the past here:

It’s crazy to think that in just four years that the Pittsburgh franchise would be back in the Stanley Cup Final, and in just five years they would be champions.

The introduction of a hard salary cap, and more impactfully the Pens win of the 2005 draft lottery no doubt changed the course of the franchise forever.

Obviously, it would take a major roster turnover. Only three players from the win to break the streak (Malone, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi) made it out to the other side still with the team when the team got good again. Many an NHL career would be over with end of the season and the next year being wiped out with the labor negotiations.

Perhaps the Sabres of today can take heart knowing that this win really helped the Pens. They went 11-5-3-0 down the stretch after finally ending the long losing streak. It was a young scrappy team that felt some relief to get a win and they found a way to play better to close out one of the most miserable and hopeless seasons in franchise history.

If Buffalo loses tonight, they will push this old Pens team away from modern NHL history with a 19th straight loss. Being as they’re playing the Flyers, let’s hope it doesn’t happen. The 2003-04 Penguins holding even a dubious spot in the record books leaves us chances like this to look back at how dire the situation once was for the Pittsburgh hockey club. Which makes the very quick turnaround to follow that has lasted 15+ years now all the sweeter.

They say it’s always darkest before the dawn, and before February 25, 2004 it was probably never darker for the Pens. It’s easy to feel for the Sabres who are in the same spot, but even worse, it doesn’t look like they have a Fleury and a Malkin and a Crosby on the horizon to reverse their trajectory.