PHILADELPHIA -- It is not just scalding disappointment the Penguins are facing now.
Not simply a humbling elimination by a detested rival.
Not merely a profound embarrassment that will linger and sting all summer.
No, being swept out of the playoffs by Philadelphia -- a very real possibility after the Flyers' 8-4 victory in Game 3 of their opening-round series Sunday at Wells Fargo Center -- would be far more significant than that.
It would be a humiliation of historic proportions.
The Penguins, down, 3-0, in the series, have been swept just twice in franchise history. By Chicago in 1972, and by Boston in 1979. On both of those occasions, they lost to teams with decidedly superior lineups.
This time, they are in danger of being bum-rushed into the offseason by an opponent that finished behind them in the regular-season standings.
If that happens, a team many predicted would string together the 16 victories needed to earn the Stanley Cup would fall just, uh, 16 short of that objective.
Precedent virtually guarantees that, having lost the first three games of their best-of-seven against the Flyers, the Penguins' season will end before the second round.
Only three teams in NHL history have overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a series, and it's unlikely that any of those were giving up goals almost at will, as the Penguins have.
Philadelphia scored 20 times through the first three games -- breaking its franchise mark for goals in a four-game series in just three -- and the Penguins' only hope at this point might be that the Flyers have exhausted themselves from raising their arms in celebration so often.
"We haven't done our best," center Jordan Staal said. "We haven't played our game consistently. We haven't done it through a whole game, and done it well."
There have been times when they haven't done much of anything. The Flyers have dissected the Penguins' defense, and the Penguins' apparent tactic of staring at Philadelphia's forwards really hard just hasn't had much of an impact.
The Penguins often have countered Philadelphia's surgical attack by abandoning the composure, focus, discipline and execution that served them so well for much of the regular season.
Left winger Chris Kunitz, for example, was guilty of a couple of glaring lapses in judgment that resulted in penalties in the second period.
Neither was necessary. Both were costly.
James Neal had just sliced Philadelphia's lead to 4-3, when Kunitz tripped Eric Wellwood in the neutral zone at 12:30.
Seventy-eight seconds later, Matt Read of the Flyers scored.
Then, after Staal had again gotten the Penguins back to within one with his second of the game at 15:40, Kunitz was sent off for slashing, in the offensive zone, at 17:22.
Wayne Simmonds got behind the Penguins' defense and beat goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with a backhander at 19:14 to restore the Flyers' two-goal edge. The Penguins would get no closer.
"I feel awful for taking some bad penalties that cost our team," Kunitz said.
The game had a national TV audience, and the most interested viewers might have been in the NHL office.
They presumably are aware the Flyers were upset by a high hit Neal delivered to Sean Couturier late in the third period, although Neal contended the contact was inadvertent.
"I didn't even mean to hit him," he said. "I don't even know if the puck was at his feet or not or where it was. I think we just chipped it. I let up as much as I could and it is what it is."
It is, however, a match penalty -- which carries an automatic suspension, pending a review by the league office -- that Arron Asham was assessed after cross-checking Flyers center Brayden Schenn at 14:15 of the first period, then punching him while he was on the ice, that figures to be studied by the NHL.
Interestingly, Schenn downplayed the incident.
"That's just his temper rising, nothing more then that," he said. "Really nothing really more then a cross-check and a punch."
Asham wasn't the only player the Penguins lost, and he certainly wasn't the most important.
Defenseman Kris Letang got a fighting major and game misconduct after trading punches with Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen at 12:02 of the first, while another fight was in progress.
On his way to the locker room, Letang mimicked the "Shhhh" gesture ex-Penguins player Max Talbot had directed at Flyers fans in a series in 2009.
Two major differences this time: Letang won his fight. And the Penguins lost the game.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published April 16, 2012 4:45 PM