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Chris Mueller: Season not lost, but Penguins on the brink

New York Islanders left wing Anders Lee (27) scores a goal against Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry (35) during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Freed)
New York Islanders left wing Anders Lee (27) scores a goal against Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry (35) during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Freed)

In previous, more glorious seasons, this would be around the time you’d expect the Pittsburgh Penguins to catch fire. This season, one most presumed would be the franchise’s 17th in a row with a playoff berth, suddenly looks imperiled.

On paper, Monday night’s 4-2 loss to the Islanders isn’t a death blow. Yes, it pushed the Penguins out of the playoff picture for the time being, their 63 points putting them two behind New York’s 65, but Mike Sullivan’s team has four games in hand on the Isles.

That’s the observable, quantifiable reality of the situation. Qualitative reality? Let’s just say the vibes have never been worse.

The loss was the team’s third in a row, but its impact may go far beyond missing out on two points.

Pittsburgh was the better team for the majority of the first 40 minutes, outshooting the Islanders 37-23 through the first two periods, with only Ilya Sorokin’s brilliance keeping New York within a goal. The Penguins got themselves into a massive scrum when their stars were getting mauled, and the crowd at PPG Paints Arena was fired up. Tristan Jarry might not have been outplaying Sorokin, but he looked sharp in his return to the lineup.

And then, the bottom fell out.

Jarry allowed a bad goal to tie things up, and his giveaway led to Anders Lee’s game-winner. The Penguins were in control, until they weren’t, and they couldn’t gin up any answers to tie things up and at least grab a point.

My assumption is that Ron Hextall felt perfectly fine about what he saw on the ice. If Jim Rutherford was a crazed adrenaline junkie of a general manager, always looking for the next deal, Hextall is human Ambien. It’s one thing to scour the market and find no deals to be made, it’s quite another to just keep the status quo, with no seeming urgency to shake things up.

This team needs one, desperately. It doesn’t even have to be a good one. Just something. Anything. I hardly think they have the right stuff to make any kind of significant playoff run, but strange things happen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Just get in, give yourself a chance, and see how things shake out. Mike Tomlin would love it.

If Jarry missing time was the excuse for uneven play – and to be fair, it explains some of this team’s troubles – what will happen if the Penguins stay stuck in the mud now that he’s back? What then? Just keep trotting out the same top-heavy team, and hope the stars drag the rest of the outfit kicking and screaming into the postseason?

The team is stuck in a purgatory of its own making, the byproduct of being unwilling to start a rebuild by trading one of its stars – specifically Evgeni Malkin – a few years back, as well as having enough playoff defeats that could be explained away by bad luck to keep plugging away with the same core. To be clear, I was fine with their process then, and I’m not criticizing it now. But that approach always risked something like this.

What might come next isn’t pretty. This franchise has been defined by superstars for 40 years, and its fans have come to expect one or two on the roster at any given time. The Fenway Sports Group knows this; it’s why keeping Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang together was a priority, and it’s why they’d rather that trio stagger to the finish line together, nobly carrying dead weight around them, no matter how bad it gets.

The Islanders loss was a gut punch, something that feels like it will resonate for weeks. The Penguins have had two such losses to New York in the last few days. In days gone by, they would have weathered a storm like this, or not faced one at all. Now? Now they’re too old, too lacking in depth, and perhaps just not good enough.

Former Penguin Tyler Kennedy summed up the grim state of affairs nicely last week on 93.7 The Fan. When I asked him how the Penguins could improve their roster without making a blockbuster trade, he simply responded, “That’s the problem. They can’t.”

Every iconic era, for every franchise, comes to an end. Sometimes it's graceful, like the Chicago Bulls three-peating again and then going their separate ways, and sometimes it’s not, like Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s Patriots getting beaten at their own game, in their own stadium, by Brady’s former teammate and Belichick’s coaching disciple, Mike Vrabel.

The Chicago Blackhawks’ run of dominance ended abruptly and spectacularly; they were contenders one minute, then got swept out of the playoffs, and were dregs of the league the next. Something similar happened to the Los Angeles Kings, who have now gotten back into contention after three years in the wilderness.

Thanks largely to Crosby’s unwavering brilliance, the Penguins have avoided a similarly ugly fate. But though the battle has been more gradual, more of a genuine tug-of-war, Father Time – with big assists from bad contracts, injuries and poor roster management – is finally starting to win.

And it doesn't look like there is anything the Penguins can do to stop it.

This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Mueller: Season not lost, but Penguins on the brink