The Penguins honored Hall of Fame announcer Mike Lange for 45 years of service before their game against the Jets Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena.
Then promptly paid further homage to Lange by being beaten like rented mules.
Never mind that they had won 18 consecutive home games against the Winnipeg/Atlanta franchise. Or that the Jets were at the end of a four-game road trip and deployed a defense corps that looked, at first blush, as if it had been pieced together mostly from waiver-wire pickups and rec league castoffs. Or even that Sidney Crosby scored 32 seconds after the opening faceoff.
None of that mattered. Not enough, certainly, to impede the Jets much on their way to a 4-1 victory that was testimony to hard work, sound strategy and efficient execution. And just to rub it in, three members of that patchwork defense -- Ville Heinola, Tucker Poolman and Neal Pionk -- accounted for all but one of Winnipeg's goals.
And so, for the first time since Dec. 27, 2006, the Jets/Thrashers left town with more than sweat-soaked laundry, while the Penguins were left to ponder the grim reality that they'll have to beat the Ducks Thursday to just break even on their season-opening four-game homestand.
"We would love to be 3-0 right now," Kris Letang said. "But that's not the case. We just have to regroup, look at the tape, try to learn from it and go from there."
One lesson they might pick up is that shots-on-goal totals shouldn't always be taken at face value, a lesson that seemed to elude them Tuesday.
"I think we controlled most of the game," Letang said. "I would say the shot clock is an indicator of where we spent most of our time. ... I think most of the time, we had the puck and were creating stuff."
That was a pretty popular sentiment in their locker room, but the cold reality is that while the Penguins finished with a 38-22 advantage in shots -- thanks in part to a 14-2 edge in the third period, when Winnipeg had no particular interest in padding its lead -- they played from behind for the final 50-plus minutes of the game.
"In the first two periods, we didn’t give them much," said Jets left winger Patrik Laine, who had three assists. "Obviously, in the third, it was just, like, keep the lead and get out of here."
The Penguins' perspective was decidedly different.
"The mistakes we made were early in the game," Crosby said. "We had tons of chances to get back into it, and we didn't."
Their first mistake likely came before the game, when Mike Sullivan and his staff decided to dress seven defensemen, one more than usual, and just 11 forwards.
"We wanted to get John Marino into a game," Sullivan said. "We think he's played extremely well to this point. The fact we've had the number of defensemen (nine) here and given the circumstance that presented itself, it seemed like a logical decision. The risk associated with it is if you lose a forward early in the game. ... We had that discussion. And we lost a forward early in the game."
That happened around the middle of the opening period, as Patric Hornqvist was injured when he was struck by a Letang shot.
Hornqvist did not come back. Neither did his team.
Many, if not most, of the Penguins' problems on this night were self-inflicted. Consider that the shots that produced the Jets' first and third goals hit Matt Murray on the way into the net, and that the second was rooted in a ghastly giveaway to Nikolaj Ehlers by Zach Aston-Reese:
Aston-Reese nearly atoned for that turnover a few minutes later, when he threw a shot past Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck. The puck came close enough to reaching the net that the goal light came on, but replays confirmed that it simply slammed off the left goalpost.
"That second goal, it was really no one else's fault but my own," Aston-Reese said. "To get a chance to kind of make up for it and have it not go in is pretty unfortunate."
So is stumbling to a 1-2 start in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division. And losing an average of more than one top-nine forward per game, as the Penguins have so far this season.
"It's not common, but I don't think any team we're playing anytime soon is going to feel sorry for us," Crosby said. "It's not easy, but collectively, we're going to have to find a way to do it, if we want to stay in the playoff picture."
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