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Tim Benz: Penguins must seize momentum or face consequences

| Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
The Penguins celebrate Phil Kessel's goal against the Blue Jackets in the third period Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins celebrate Phil Kessel's goal against the Blue Jackets in the third period Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.

What a great win for the Penguins over the Blue Jackets! Let's hear what some of the players and coaches had to say about that victory.

Mike Sullivan: “The energy and the emotion in the game, that's as good as it has been this year for us.”

Sidney Crosby: “We did some really good things tonight. Hopefully, this is something we can build off of.”

Kris Letang: “It was a pretty intense game. A lot of emotion out there. When everyone contributes, it's a nice team win.”

Oh. I'm sorry. My bad. Those quotes were from the PREVIOUS Penguins win over Columbus. On Dec. 21 by a final of 3-2 in a shootout.

You know, a game that had been the most recent “emotional win that'll finally inspire this team and get this Penguins' season turned around.”

Then they went out and lost 4-0 to Anaheim in perhaps their least-inspiring performance this season.

Well, Columbus came back to Pittsburgh again Wednesday and the Penguins got down 4-2 in the third period. They rallied back, however, to tie the game on late goals from Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

Then, after having an overtime winner from Crosby disallowed, the Penguins won 5-4 in a shootout.

So, how about the reaction to: “Season turnaround win vs Columbus 2.0?”

Sullivan: “It was a real character win. It's the most resilient this group has been all year long.”

Guentzel: “Definitely a character win tonight. We know what's at stake right now. We definitely need to be more consistent.”

Patric Hornqvist: “It's something to build on. If we keep playing like that, we'll be fine.”

I'm not trying to minimize the victory. Like everybody else who enjoys playoff hockey in Pittsburgh, after two straight Stanley Cups I'm just hoping the Penguins make it to the postseason.

As of now, they are still on the outside of the playoff bracket looking in. While the season is too young to start fretting terribly about such matters, it's old enough to say the Penguins aren't just slow out of the gate.

They are in the midst of a bad season. And it's one that needs to turn around quickly if they are to defend their Cup.

From the fans and some in the media, “It's just a slow start” gave way to “ It's just November hockey .”

That begat “It's not even the holidays yet.”

If the Penguins don't maintain traction soon, what's next? “Check in with me on Valentine's Day?” Or “Wait until the trade deadline?”

Actually, trades are very much tied into this conversation. We've all heard rumors that Kris Letang may be on the market. Trading him away would be an indication Jim Rutherford desperately wants to shake things up and is willing to move an important component to do so.

My guess is such a decision would be a last-ditch effort to get a Stanley Cup team back on the rails.

After a Cup victory in 1991, Craig Patrick made that kind of move in '92 when he dealt Mark Recchi and Paul Coffey and got Rick Tocchet in return, along with Ken Wregget, Kjell Samuelsson and Jeff Chychrun.

Rutherford's track record shows us that making such a move wouldn't scare him. The common belief, though, is it's not something he really wants to do.

Finally building momentum off a perceived turning-point win would mitigate the perceived need to swing such a deal right now. That would provide more time for this team to get back in the playoff picture and reestablish itself in the Eastern Conference.

As a reminder, the Penguins are 19-16-3. Back on Dec. 28, 2015, they were a similar 17-15-4. The team had lost five of its first seven games under the recently hired Sullivan.

Mike Johnston was the person who was sacrificed in the name of forcing the issue then. It likely won't be Sullivan now.

If it isn't Letang or some other players of importance, then the team needs to start forcing the issue itself on the ice if it wants to stay intact.

The public hasn't given up on their chances. Far from it. Back in '15 the mood among Pittsburgh's hockey fan base around the holidays was: “What are they going to do and when are they going to do it?”

Now, it's still for the most part: “Let's wait and see. They'll get it together.”

The door has been open for that to happen on a few occasions now. The Pens need to finally skate through it.

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.

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