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Penguins

Penguins winning at historic pace, but losses are epic

Jonathan Bombulie
| Monday, Jan. 9, 2017, 6:12 p.m.
Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan stands behind his bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Winnipeg Jets in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. The Penguins won 4-1. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan stands behind his bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Winnipeg Jets in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. The Penguins won 4-1. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
The Kings' Tyler Toffoli's shot in the overtime period beats Penguins goaltender Matt Murray Friday, Dec. 16, 2016 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Kings' Tyler Toffoli's shot in the overtime period beats Penguins goaltender Matt Murray Friday, Dec. 16, 2016 at PPG Paints Arena.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have something in common with Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski and Dick Groat.

Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury can relate to Bob Friend and Roy Face.

In a curious way, the 2016-17 Penguins are a lot like the 1960 Pirates.

Those Pirates won the World Series over the New York Yankees in seven games, but the three losses they suffered were decisive to say the least. They fell by scores of 16-3, 10-0 and 12-0 before claiming a championship on Mazeroski's iconic home run.

These Penguins, meanwhile, are 26-8-5. That's a franchise record for fewest regulation losses in the first 39 games of a season. But in five of those eight losses, they've been beaten by four goals or more. Overall, they've been outscored 43-12 when they fall in regulation.

“Those blowout games are embarrassing,” forward Eric Fehr said. “It doesn't matter where it happened, when it happened, against who, those are tough games to deal with. They're games you don't want to be a part of.”

The Penguins will have a chance to avenge one of those losses when they visit the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night. The last time they played at Verizon Center, the Penguins ate a 7-1 loss Nov. 16.

Safe to say coach Mike Sullivan won't have to deliver much of a motivational speech before faceoff.

“When you go through a humbling experience like that, this group is a proud group, and we want to make sure we respond the right way,” Sullivan said after practice Monday. “I don't think players or teams forget those experiences. I think they use them as motivation to make sure we bring the necessary focus, the commitment level, to be at our best.”

No one in the Penguins locker room has much of an explanation for why a team that is otherwise one of the NHL's best turns in a clunker every once in a while.

“Why it happens, it's tough to say,” defenseman Olli Maatta said. “I really don't know.”

Winger Carl Hagelin had perhaps the best theory.

The Penguins were inconsistent through much of the first three months of the season, having their share of ups and downs. When one of the downs coincided with a game against a good team playing well, it was a recipe for disaster, like in a 4-0 loss to Montreal in October, a 6-2 loss to Minnesota in November and a 7-1 loss to Columbus in December.

“I think those losses are more common early in the season when you're trying to find your game,” Hagelin said.

In general, it's not a phenomenon the Penguins spend too much time trying to dissect.

“A loss is a loss. You play to win. Whether you lose 25-0 or 1-0 in overtime, it's still a loss,” goalie Matt Murray said. “You're probably just as upset. You look at the things the same way whether you lose in a shootout or you get beat pretty bad. That's just a professional athlete's mindset.”

On top of that, they're 8-0 in games immediately following a regulation loss.

“That's the thing that's been the positive,” center Matt Cullen said. “We've been able to respond to those and get to our game and play well. “

There are two reasons, however, the Penguins would like to see the trend end.

First, they feel bad about putting their goaltenders in such a bad spot once or twice a month.

“Sometimes they get left right out to dry and there's not much they can do,” Fehr said. “They're just in there to take a beating and you're not giving them any help.”

Second, it's important for a good team to be able to manage momentum within a game. A team that loses 7-1 obviously fails to accomplish that goal.

“I'm not sure you gave up, but somewhere, the other team scores two or three goals and the bench kind of dies,” Hagelin said. “It's more how we react to a bad moment in the game.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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