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Breakfast with Benz

Tim Benz: Penguins must avoid turning into what Steelers have become

| Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, 6:12 a.m.
Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan yells instructions during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019. The Blackhawks won 5-3. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan yells instructions during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019. The Blackhawks won 5-3. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

What a bad Sunday. Blowing a lead. Playing down to the level of bad competition. Thirteen giveaways.

I'm not talking about the Steelers. I'm talking about the Penguins.

For one night, it felt like Mike Tomlin's team had swapped its spikes for the skates of Mike Sullivan's players.

The Penguins frittered away a 2-0 lead Sunday night, losing to Chicago at PPG Paints Arena. The Blackhawks entered the game with just 15 wins, the lowest total in the Western Conference.

Essentially, they are the Raiders of hockey this year.

Continuing the analogy, the Hawks have a mystical spell over the Penguins in the same way Oakland does over the Steelers. The Hawks have beaten the Pens 10 times in a row.

On the bright side, Casey DeSmith somehow kept Derek Carr and Jared Cook off the score sheet.

That loss to Chicago could easily be brushed off as "just a bad night." An over-correction. A rare retreat to some old bad habits the Penguins seemed to have kicked in recent weeks. Before puck drop Sunday, Sullivan's troops had won eight in a row and nine of 11.

That stretch went a long way toward erasing a sputtering start which saw the club drop 15 of its first 25 to begin the year.

Now, they sit just two points back of Washington for first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Similar to their neighbors on the other side of the Point who started 1-2-1, the Penguins stopped the bleeding after a dreadful break out of the gate to find themselves in a great spot.

Now we've come to the part of the story where Pittsburgh sports fans hope the similarities end.

The Steelers got about two-thirds of the way through their schedule with a stellar 7-2-1 record and a first place slot in the AFC North. The Pens are a little beyond the halfway point of their 82-game schedule, winning 23 of 42 games and totaling 52 of a potential 84 points.

Here's hoping they sustain their momentum a few months longer than the football Black and Gold, who ended up missing the postseason despite having a greater than 95 percent chance of making the playoffs going into Week 12.

"It's a group that's been through it and understands what it takes over the course of 82 games," Penguins veteran forward Matt Cullen said. "Trusting that we'd find our game and get to where we need to be.

"You'd like to start out of the gates and run it the whole season. But that's not easy to do. The important thing is we are building in the right direction."

The Penguins know that Steelers comparison all too well. They lived it.

The Steelers won a Super Bowl title in 2008 and have been constant contenders since, but they have not been good enough to win another championship. They've had gobs of talent along the way, good enough to never be under .500.

Sadly for them, nothing coalesced to propel them to the promised land once more.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang can relate. After their first Stanley Cup win, the Pens spent the next six years wondering why a star-studded roster kept flaming out in the Eastern Conference playoffs against lesser-seeded teams.

Sound familiar?

Much like their football counterparts, those failures came with lots of hard times. Two fired coaches. One deposed general manager. Crosby's concussion. A nightly referendum on Marc-Andre Fleury. Strokes. Blood clots. Mumps. Trades by the bushel.

It never got to the point where things unraveled, though. Crosby never sent tweets about looking ahead to the Kings before the Bruins series in 2013. Malkin never sat out a whole year in a contract dispute. And Phil Kessel never exaggerated an injury to skip a game.

OK, maybe Kessel played through an injury too long to keep a consecutive game streak going, but you get the point.

Unlike what we've seen on the South Side, these guys never got unglued.

"You've got to keep everything in perspective," coach Mike Sullivan said. "You've got to stay in the moment. You can't dwell in the past."

You mean like not going AWOL for a week because your quarterback yelled at you?

"You're a team," Crosby said. "You rely on guys next to you. When it's good or it's bad."

Sure. Unless the "guy next to you" is skipping practice before an elimination game, getting himself suspended for being baked or on a jet ski in Miami while you are practicing along the Monongahela.

Aside from the "Big 3" holdovers from 2009, a lot of these Penguins know only last year's playoff loss to the Capitals as "bad times" in Pittsburgh. In terms of fan response, that was a "2" on a scale of 1-10. Fans were so grateful for the Cup runs the previous two years, there was as much applause after that series as there was scorn.

They should've seen what things were like around here after the Bruins swept through four games in that 2013 Eastern Conference Final.

"You have to help each other. It's a team sport. You aren't a golfer out there by yourself," Crosby said.

Novel concept. Maybe the Steelers who are currently golfing should keep that message in mind when they come back to Pittsburgh in the spring.

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