Pay close enough attention to the NHL schedule and it will reward you with some repeated threads. Such has been the case around this time of year for the Pittsburgh Penguins. After their Christmas break last year, the Pens came back to play the Islanders on the road on December 27, 2022. Fast forward a year and the Penguins also started out after this year’s Christmas break on December 27, 2023 with a game in Long Island.
The schedule quirks are about where the similarities end.
Last year around this time, Pittsburgh was 19-9-5 entering the holiday and one of the best teams in the division and conference to open up the 2022-23 campaign. The NHL Christmas break is short, but it looks pretty decisive in hindsight. The recap headline for the return game: “Flat Penguins embarrassed on Long Island” in a 5-1 loss where they gave up four straight goals to slink away in that contest.
Turns out, that rotten loss was a sign of things to come for the Pens. The Pens proceeded to blow a 4-0 lead and lose 5-4 in overtime to Detroit the very next night. Add in a 4-2 loss on December 30th to New Jersey followed by having Tristan Jarry get hurt at the New Year Day’s Winter Classic in a 2-1 loss to Boston. Looking back, it would be difficult not to see that the tone was set for the rest of the season that led to the breakage of Pittsburgh’s 16 year playoff streak right around this time of year.
When a team misses out on the playoffs by one point, you can and tend to will circle any and every loss as the potential turning point. But given how strong the team was before Christmas, and then how things immediately turned on a dime at this exact point, it lines up pretty well in hindsight to go back to the NYI game coming out of Christmas as where it all really started to go wrong for the Penguins last season. Even worse, that game foreshadowed the first of many disastrous performances against the Islanders to come last season, too.
With the bad stuff out of the way, hit the fast forward button and let’s get to the uplifting turn of events.
The start of the 2023-24 season for the Pens was opposite of 2022-23, for results up to Christmas at least. Unlike last year’s hot start, Pittsburgh has languished this year around the middle to bottom of the pack to come out of the gates.
But, if you’re feeling hopeful, you can probably see where this is going. The paths have diverged, if only for one game. This year’s return from Christmas against the Islanders ended up going the complete opposite of 2022’s. The Pens skunked NYI with a 7-0 result and roared back to begin on a much sweeter note.
It won’t mean a thing if the Penguins lose, say three out of the next four (including another big rematch with NYI next week), but it’s at least something to see history break in a different way. Especially if you hang out on the internet too long and start to hear and believe that everything is always the same, or nothing has ever changed or been good for the Penguins in years.
That’s obviously demonstrably false or the victim of short memories since it clearly was going very well last year until around the holiday season when the train went off the tracks, and in a major way. The Pens went 21-22-6 from after Christmas to the end of the season last year. Their good start evaporated and since then for really the last 12 months a bit of a fog or haze has hung around the team for the most part. It felt pretty cathartic for players and fans alike to see the script diverge on 12/27 this time around though.
This year, time will tell if the opposite result coming out of the holiday break builds to an opposite type of second half. There are no guarantees, but it certainly won’t be the exact same if the Pens can find a way to get success against the Islanders and raise their game in the second half of the season in ways they could not do last year.
In other news, Bryan Rust re-joined the team in practice today. The forward has been out with an injury since a game on December 6th. He won’t be playing until at least January 2nd due to LTIR conditions, but it looks like the Pens will be getting the winger who has scored 10 goals and 20 points in 22 games this season back sooner than later, in what will be a very welcome addition back, whenever that may be.
Bryan Rust had a strong start to the season and is eligible to return from long-term injured reserve on Jan. 2.— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 29, 2023
Rust: "This isn't my first injury, this isn't my first go-around... it's something that I've been able to learn from and try and put myself in the best situation." pic.twitter.com/a6yg2FAHug