At most times, and by most measures, returning home from a three-game road trip against three bitter division rivals with five of six possible points would be viewed as a resounding success.
Once the sting of Scott Hartnell’s goal with 0.9 seconds left in Sunday’s overtime, giving the Philadelphia Flyers a 3-2 win, wears off, the Pittsburgh Penguins will remember all that they accomplished – not just in their three-game stint against the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and Flyers, but during their 11-game win streak, which stands as the NHL’s longest this season.
“Probably tomorrow,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “Not right now.”
With a win, the Penguins would have completed the once-unthinkable task of catching the New York Rangers for first place in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, instead of remaining one point behind. And, after two periods, with Pittsburgh outshooting Philadelphia 27-10 and leading 2-0, first place – and consecutive win No. 12 – looked to be in the bag.
But the Flyers clawed back in the third, mounting a comeback that started with a power play goal just 31 seconds into the frame.
“Them scoring the goal right off the hop made it a one-goal game. And, regardless of where the game was played and what the shots were at that point in time, I think that spurred them on,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “They got some good shifts after that, hemmed us in a little bit and it became more of a 50-50 game.”
Philadelphia went on to spend much of the third in the Pittsburgh zone, frustrating the Penguins and luring them into after-the-whistle scrums that took focus away from the game plan they’d executed for 40 minutes.
“We played really well for two periods. The shots were 3-1, the pace was great, and that stuff after the whistle just slows down the pace and gives them energy,” Orpik said. “That’s what they want, and we fed right into it.”
“The extracurricular stuff was the turning point in the game,” said Bylsma. “It was a situation where they targeted players after the whistle and didn’t get penalized for it, and I think that allowed them to get back into the game.”
A downbeat Penguins locker room underscored the team’s lofty expectations – expectations that are all the greater since Thursday’s return of their captain, Sidney Crosby, and best defenseman, Kris Letang.
“I don’t like losing games and, today, we had a two-goal lead going into the third period, so we’re not going to walk away feeling like we’re going to pat ourselves on the back for the road trip,” Bylsma said. “Those were three big games, three road buildings. We played hard, and we wanted to come in here and beat Philadelphia as well. But we let that slip away with the second half of the game.”
The Penguins, Crosby and Letang in particular, will use Monday to recover from three tough, emotional games in four days. The rest of March won’t provide much opportunity to rest, however, with seven games in 11 days, including two back-to-backs. That stretch kicks off Tuesday at home against the Winnipeg Jets, who sit in ninth place in the East, two points behind the Washington Capitals for the final playoff spot.
“During the streak, you probably couldn’t have told our team we were on a streak; [the mentality was] just pick up and go to the next game,” Bylsma said. “We’ve had big games against a lot of different people, three big divisional games on the road, and now we’re going to play a team that’s fighting for their playoff lives.
“They’re talking about playoff hockey, and every game for them is going to be that way. That’s what the next game is for us. We know we’re playing a team that could very well be the eighth seed, and we could be seeing them again in the playoffs as well.”
That, of course, would mean that the Penguins had finished in first. They have three weeks and 11 games left to try to make that happen – sooner, preferably, than later.
“Obviously, it was our goal to catch [the Rangers] tonight,” Letang said. “We don’t want to wait until later in the season; we want to take the lead of our division as soon as possible.”