Throughout the 2022-23 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have lost many — MANY — games that have made us say, “wow, that is a bad loss.”
Blown leads to good teams. Blown leads to bad teams. Just flat out losing to bad teams. Losing to bad teams on the second half of a back-to-back when they were rested. Losing games that would have given them an opportunity to solidify their spot in the standings and a playoff spot. On and on.
Every time they lost one of those games it would have been easy to think, “well they are not going to possibly lose a game worse than that. Because that is a bad loss.”
Somehow, they always managed to lose a game worse than the previous game.
On Tuesday night, they managed to not only do that and lose the worst game of the season in a staggering 5-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, they topped every other team in franchise history and delivered the worst regular season loss in the history of the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise.
I do not think that is an overreaction or hyperbole. It is not being a prisoner of the moment and having an emotional response to a bad loss that significantly hurts your playoff chances. It is an honest assessment. Because it was that bad,
It might even be worse than we all realize.
I did not like the idea that because Chicago is hoping for draft lottery position that the players on the ice wouldn’t be invested. I kept hearing “well Chicago WANTS to lose this game” so the Penguins better win. There were a lot of reasons why the Penguins should have won that game. But the Blackhawks not wanting to win was not among them. The front office might be strategically positioning the roster so it is not very good so it can get the best draft lottery odds. The fans might be hoping they lose so they can get a better draft spot and maybe land a franchise player. But I promise you the 20 players that put on a Chicago Blackhawks jersey on Tuesday night did not care about any of that crap.
They wanted to win. They were going to play to win. That is what professional athletes do. That is how they are wired mentally. That is part of what helped them get to that level. They are playing for jobs in the future. They are playing for their career. Jonathan Toews, three-time Stanley Cup winner, is not going to go into a game and hope for a loss to land the team a superstar when he himself will probably never play a game alongside that player.
The Blackhawks were always going to give an honest effort.
DId they outplay the Penguins? Not really. Pittsburgh had a massive territorial edge and scoring chance lead. But Blackhawks goalie Petr Mrazek battled, the Blackhawks blocked shots like it was a playoff game, and they capitalized on more bad goaltending in Pittsburgh.
Really, it was all of the hits from this Penguins team.
Dominant possession numbers offensively but no finish around the net.
Losing to a team you should beat.
We should not have been surprised after seeing the same script play out game after game after game after game all season.
What makes this loss stand out so much more than the others, and so much more than any other regular season loss in team history, is just the circumstances around it.
The Penguins were playing for their season. They got a GIFT on Monday night when BOTH the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers lost. All they had to was beat the two worst teams in the league to extend their playoff streak to 17 consecutive seasons. That is it.
Their first attempt was against a Blackhawks team that is an NHL roster in name only. It was 50 percent of Jonathan Toews and a washed up Tyler Johnson surrounded by an AHL roster.
They had a defenseman (not a particularly good defenseman, either) playing as their third-line center.
They played the night before and did not arrive in Pittsburgh until 3 AM, while the Penguins were rested with the night off.
It should have been as guaranteed of a two points as you can get in the NHL. But you know, that is the SECOND time I said that this season, because it is a nearly identical circumstance to the third of their losses to the Montreal Canadiens a couple of weeks ago when a badly injured, poorly constructed Canadiens team came into Pittsburgh under nearly identical circumstances and also beat the Penguins.
Both were awful losses. But, again, what puts this one so far ahead is just the fact that you knew you NEEDED to win. You knew the circumstances and the stakes if you lost. They had chances after the Montreal game to make up for that performance. They really do not have another chance after this, unless by some wild circumstance Montreal actually beats the Islanders on Wednesday night. I can not imagine Ilya Sorokin craps the bed against two bad teams two games in a row.
The only other regular season loss that is even somewhat comparable was the final game of the 1989-90 season when they only needed a tie to clinch a playoff spot. They made it to overtime, and lost when Buffalo’s Uwe Krupp scored a late goal to keep the Penguins from the playoffs.
Devastating loss for that season.
But that was at a point in time where the Penguins organizatiom was not yet established as a winner. Yeah, they had Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey and Tom Barrasso and some really good players, they were not winners yet. That Buffalo team was also REALLY good. It won 45 games, had Pierre Turgeon, Phil Housley, Dave Andreychuk, a young Alexander Mogilny and they were third in the league in goals against.
No shame in losing that game.
It also put the Penguins in a position where they could draft Jaromir Jagr the following year, who helped the team win two Stanley Cups, including that following year.
There is no Jaromir Jagr walking through that door this summer.
This was also an established Penguins team, with three future Hall of Famers, a franchise on a 16-year playoff streak with multiple Stanley Cups on its resume with a playoff spot on the line, going against the literal worst team in the league.
The number of points this team gave away this season is staggering. In games just like that. They went 0-1-2 against Montreal. They beat Detroit one time. They lost to San Jose at home. They lost to Ottawa at home. They lost to Chicago at home.
That is not even getting into the three blown leads against the Islanders.
Just win ONE of those games and you still control your own playoff success. They got what they deserve. Maybe they will get lucky and get another chance on Thursday night in Columbus. They do not really deserve it though.
There will be plenty of time to go over Ron Hextall’s many failures again and the flaws Mike Sullivan had in the coming days and weeks and months. For now though we just need to marvel at what is quite literally the worst loss in franchise history. It is a Picasso of a failure. A true masterpiece.