When it started to appear as though Dan Bylsma might not be finishing out his first NHL coaching assignment 23-1-1, no one looked terribly surprised, but when it was just as clear that the Penguins might actually miss the elevator to the almost comfortable fifth floor of the Eastern Conference last night, there was more than a little disappointment.
There is still a month left in this difficult Penguins season, still a month, but opportunities like last night's are not exactly bulging from the landscape of the remaining 14 games.
Only three of them, actually, will be against the curious nest of clubs from which Bylsma's team is trying to extract itself to gain the playoffs.
That's the backstory on why last night's appointment with the Florida Panthers was hugely huge. Having spent the winter wandering the subterranean sections of the playoff structure, the Penguins used the phenomenon that was a unbeaten five-game road trip to arrive at the ground floor of hope, only to find the Panthers waiting for the same elevator.
Someone was getting the chance to end up in fifth place with last night's two points, and someone was going to have the total points available to them reduced inalterably by two. The proverbial four-point game (see the Book of Proverbs. It's got to be in there.)
That Florida slunk into the night with a single point thanks to the overtime provision proved a disappointment the Penguins would easily handle, because whatever is fueling this team last night took it from a two-goal third-period deficit to a second consecutive shootout victory.
Nor did Montreal's overtime win, which put the turbulent Canadiens into fifth place temporarily. There are just too many good things happening in Captain Crosby's locker room to feel anything but buzzed about the Penguins' seventh consecutive victory.
"This was just so important," said Sidney Crosby. "We need every point, and we probably deserved a better fate in that we should have had two by the end of regulation. But overtime, shootouts, they all count, and the important thing is that we keep finding ways to win tough games."
Just as the Penguins did Sunday in Washington, they nailed this thing down by prevailing one-on-one, with Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin beating Florida's Tomas Vokoun in the night's final moments, while the continually brilliant Marc-Andre Fleury rejected both shots he faced.
"Flower's been unbelievable," said Jordan Staal. "He's the reason we've been playing so well. He's the reason we've been getting two points every night."
Petr Sykora was an unhealthy scratch for a second consecutive game, and the key component of Malkin's line was presumed to have a shoulder injury of indeterminate worry, the kind of thing that, were the hockey team pressed on it, would get described as an upper body injury, so rule out nothing from the naval to the far follicles.
In Sykora's first absence, Sunday's spectacular matinee in the nation's capital, it meant Malkin would have a 10-game scoring streak ended, but last night Geno got his groove back with some help from Crosby.
This came late in a Penguins-dominated first period when Crosby flushed the puck from the shallows of the right corner to the near doorstep, where Malkin engaged Panthers defenseman Keith Ballard in a sword fight over the arriving biscuit.
Both had their backs to goaltender Vokoun, but when Malkin flipped it with the backhand, neither Ballard nor Vokoun could spot it until it was entangled in the net.
It meant Malkin has scored for the 22nd time in 26 games, and it meant that Malkin was a 30-goal scorer in each of his first three NHL seasons, and it meant a 1-0 Penguins lead after one, and all of that meant next to nothing to the Panthers.
Florida's immensely impressive three-goal outburst in the middle period laid out all the requirements of available Penguins heroism. In roughly 14 minutes, the Panthers got three goals from three players who'd combined for only 11 all season long.
The Penguins' irritability with all that finally became evident in the third, when Tyler Kennedy put a beauteous move on Florida's Jassen Cullimore in the left faceoff circle and got the puck to Jordan Staal streaming at Vokoun. Staal made it 3-2, and Crosby got the tying goal at 5:29 of the third without having very much to do with it.
Bill Guerin fired a shot from the high slot that hit Crosby, hit the post, hit Vokoun somewhere in his nether regions and slid across the goal line. Though it was more than 14 minutes from the final horn in regulation, it wound up forcing a scoreless overtime and the second shootout in the past two games.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.