The Philadelphia Flyers’ Jakub Voracek started it all with 19.7 seconds remaining in regulation, outdoors at Lincoln Financial Field on Feb. 23.
The Sabres’ Brandon Montour was next, with 2:32 remaining March 2 in Buffalo.
Philly did it again in Pittsburgh on March 17. This time it was James van Riemsdyk with 18.8 seconds remaining, setting up an ignominious first in NHL history for the Penguins. No team had twice in one season let up a game-tying goal to the same opponent in the final 30 seconds, then gone on to lose against them in overtime.
Next game? Who else but noted clutch player Justin Williams, captain of the Carolina Hurricanes, with 1:56 remaining in Raleigh on March 19.
Just two nights later, for the third time in as many contests, the Penguins found themselves clinging to a late, one-goal lead that would soon evaporate. Along came Nashville’s Ryan Ellis, with just 3:01 left in regulation, to tie it up and send the game to overtime.
This time, finally, the ending would be different, thanks to captain Sidney Crosby’s deceptively simple, five-hole shot to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 win in the shootout.
“We’ve had a lot of practice [regrouping],” Crosby said. “We’ve probably learned to just move by it quick. In the case tonight, three minutes is still a lot of time left in the game; sometimes those have happened with less than 20 seconds left. I think we’ve just tried to stay positive, move by it and make sure we finish hard.”
But the positive outcome against the Predators doesn’t change the Penguins’ concerning trend of letting late-game leads slip away.
It’s a development that runs contrary to some stats, like the Penguins’ 33-0-3 record when leading after two periods. And it’s not one you want to see creep into your team’s game at this time of year – when every point is critical to playoff positioning and when, once the postseason begins, those overtime losses count for absolutely nothing.
“I think tonight’s different than maybe other times when we might’ve sat back or not continued to go at teams,” Crosby said in Nashville. “You need to go through those situations in order to learn from them.”
What can the Penguins learn from recent experience? It’s hard to say, since there hasn’t been a lot of consistency to the situations.
“They’re all different,” head coach Mike Sullivan said after his club’s 4-3 loss to Carolina. “This one was off a faceoff; it was a scramble. The puck’s bouncing everywhere. It’s not like we can identify one thing. We’d like to believe that we can defend leads better. We have in the past, for a long time, and been very good at it. So I know we’re capable.”
There are a few common concerns, though. The Penguins’ overtime record this year is not good – 5-8 in the extra frame, where you’d expect their skilled players to thrive 3-on-3, and 2-3 in the shootout. They’ve also blown several of those late-game leads in 6-on-5 situations, with the opposing goalie pulled for the extra attacker.
“It’s obviously something we need to get better at,” defenseman Jack Johnson said. “There’s going to be goalies pulled in tight games down the stretch and during the playoffs.”
“Each one was different so there’s not a trend, I wouldn’t say,” goalie Matt Murray said. “But each time there’s been one little mistake, and I’ve got to make the save. That’s pretty much what it comes down to.”
The skaters, however, view it as a full-team issue.
“You’ve got 20 seconds left, you’ve just got to finish it,” said forward Matt Cullen after the second loss to the Flyers. “It’s the whole group; we’ve just got to find a way to close that out. Find a way to keep our foot on the gas and not give them any life.
“Obviously, if we’re going to be where we want to be at the end of the season, we’ve got to get better at finishing games.”
Heading into Saturday’s contest at Dallas, third of a four-game road trip, the Penguins hope Thursday’s win in Nashville is the start of reversing the trend.
“I think our team has played extremely well here over the last couple of weeks and probably deserved more points than we got, but that’s how hockey goes sometimes,” Sullivan said. “They’re playing hard, they know the stakes are high and they’re doing everything they can to try to help this team win. To a man.
“I think we have great leadership in our room. I think this core group of players, they’re an experienced group and they know what it takes at this time of year. We’ve got to continue to keep our focus on the one task at hand and just stay in the moment. I was thrilled for them [in Nashville]. I thought we played a hard game.”