Twenty-six seconds. Twenty-six seconds in a seemingly redundant game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 11 influenced the NHL’s landscape this season and for the decade to come. Over-dramatization is not occurring here, as game 81 of the Penguins’ season sunk theirs while lifting the Florida Panthers to heights their organization has only seen once.
Let’s back up. Why were those 26 seconds so influential? The Penguins held a 40-30-10 record in 80 games, while the Panthers had a 42-31-8 record, having played 81. The Panthers would lose game 82, meaning a win, and they are in for the Pens. Instead, the Panthers are in the Stanley Cup Final, while the Penguins are in turmoil.
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The Penguins’ matchup was the Blackhawks, a bottom-five team in the league whose sole goal this season was to be as awful as possible. This game, among many others, had implausible ramifications. In the previously mentioned 26 seconds, the Blackhawks score two lightning-fast goals in the third period, going up 3-1 over the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena. The shock on Penguins fans’ faces following Athanasiou’s goal, the second goal in those 26, is the realization that the Penguins’ 16 consecutive playoff seasons were coming to an end.
A footnote is needed. Theoretically, the Penguins could have made the 2023 NHL Playoffs had they not lost their remaining game. This game is more important than game 82 of the Pens’ season due to the dually-noted ramifications impacting the Blackhawks and another bottom-five team. Let us go through each organization affected by the Penguins’ loss to the Blackhawks.
Florida Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final
The margins between being a lottery team and being a Stanley Cup Finalist are incredibly thin in the NHL, and the Panthers just proved that. If not for the Penguins losing to the Blackhawks and the Columbus Blue Jackets, the representative of the Eastern Conference for the 2023 Stanley Cup Final would be an afterthought. In a way, this is the beauty of the NHL. The motto “just get in” truly applies, as particular players hitting their stride at the right time can make a difference.
If the Panthers did miss the playoffs, the narratives shift from general manager (GM) Bill Zito being a mastermind, stealing Matthew Tkachuk from the Flames, to his inability to have foresight last trade deadline, giving up unprotected picks years away. The Panthers’ Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final became the season’s biggest story thanks to the Penguins’ loss. One NHL team, rightly or wrongly, will look to replicate the Panthers roster assuming it is a definitive, sure-fire avenue to success, despite the evidence showing the team merely made the 2023 NHL Playoffs by the skin of their teeth.
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Implosion
When there are winners, there are losers. The Penguins shot themselves in the foot, losing two must-win games to the 2023 Blackhawks and Blue Jackets. The disappointment from this season shocked the organization and the NHL — not seeing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, et al. in the playoffs is weird. Furthermore, talk of frustration, deceitfulness, and interesting negotiating tactics coming from within the organization, trading players at team dinners, and angering the teams’ stars, specifically Evgeni Malkin, eventually culminated in the firing of Penguins president of hockey operations Brian Burke and GM Ron Hextall (from Chaos, loathing and the Big Three: How the Penguins unraveled,’ The Athletic, May 24, 2023).
It may not be for the worst. The Penguins hired whiz-kid Kyle Dubas to become their new president, where he can establish a new culture different from the heavily maligned Burke/Hextall regime. Dubas will add creativity and innovation to this Penguins team, but if they win on April 11, the chances Burke and Hextall stay as president and GM are much higher, potentially a scary thought for Penguins fans.
Bedard to the Blackhawks
Aside from the Panthers, there is no bigger winner from the events that transpired on April 11 than the Blackhawks. Succeeding at the underdog role is a cute story that can make the players, fans, and management feel good for a few days following the game, but a month later is where the actual stakes at play unfolded. The Blackhawks won the draft lottery, winning the right to select phenom Connor Bedard, or whoever else they see fit, first overall in Nashville at the 2023 NHL Draft.
The Blackhawks pulled off one of NHL history’s best purposeful tank jobs. Despite what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman may choose to believe, tanking is real in the NHL. People heavily debate the ethics of tanking; not no matter one’s opinion, it was Bedard or bust for the Blackhawks, Ducks, Sharks, and other bottom-feeding teams. Inadvertently or not, the Blue Jackets and Ducks out-tanked the Hawks, but fate was not in their favor. If not for Athanasiou scoring the second of the two goals within 26 seconds on April 11, the game-winning goal, to secure an additional two points for the Blackhawks, Bedard may be in a different uniform come the 2023-24 season.
Blue Jackets Fall in Standings & Draft Lottery
If one team wins the lottery, then 15 lose, and the Blue Jackets definitely lost. Despite missing the playoffs, the Penguins still indirectly tortured their Metropolitan Division rival. The Blackhawks’ win put them with the exact point total, 59, as the Blue Jackets. However, the Blackhawks held the tie-breaker, placing them at 30th instead of 31st. If the Penguins win as expected, it would be the Blue Jackets with Bedard.
The reason why the Blue Jackets would win the lottery is simple. Every NHL team is assigned several lottery balls based on their positioning in the standings. The Blue Jackets did have more balls than the Blackhawks, although their numbers varied. The Jackets would assume the Blackhawks’ role, taking their balls and winning the lottery. Bedard, paired with Patrik Laine, Kent Johnson, and all the other young, budding stars in their organization, would have been fantastic for the NHL. Unfortunately, the Penguins won, and the unlucky bounce of the ping-pong bells led to a different result.
Canadiens Miss Out on Lottery Pick
The Montreal Canadiens acquired the Panthers’ 2023 unprotected 1st-round pick, 2022 4th-round pick, and forward prospect Tyler Smilanic in exchange for Ben Chiarot. This trade happened at the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline. Risk is an understatement from the Panthers’ position. Trading an unprotected 1st-round pick a year away, the primary piece of the deal, for Chiarot brings uncertainty, and it almost cost them a chance at Bedard.
The Panthers only held a playoff spot for 28 percent of the season, meaning the likelihood of the Canadiens receiving an unprotected 1st-round selection in what scouts consider a deep draft was extremely high. Of course, we know the rest. The Panthers became one of the hottest teams to end the season, and the Penguins choked away their chances at the playoffs. The Canadiens suffer due to the Penguins’ loss. Instead of having a top-15 pick, the pick now resides at either 31 or 32, likely missing out on the talents of Brayden Yager, Matthew Wood, Zach Benson, Axel Sandin Pellikka, and other exceptional mid-1st-round prospects.
Bruins’ Round One Collapse Could’ve Been Avoided
The Panthers caught lightning in a bottle against the Boston Bruins. Down 3-1 in the series, they stormed back to overcome the deficit, riding the momentum to the Stanley Cup Final, dominating any team in their way. If the Penguins win against the Blackhawks, the Panthers obviously miss the playoffs, but the Bruins could’ve stomped the Pens.
The Penguins finished their season with a 5-4-1 in their last ten — a mediocre record for a mediocre hockey team. The Pens have Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Evgeni Malkin, but questionable goaltending, defense, and a lack of depth tarnished their season. The Panthers defeated the Bruins due to high-flying speed and skill with some help from their goaltending, nothing the Penguins brought to the table.
Assuming the Bruins play and beat the Penguins, they would face their long-time rival in round two — the Toronto Maple Leafs. The margins are thin in the NHL, as evident through this thought process, but if the Bruins manage to make it past the first round as they should have, they are likely playing in the Stanley Cup Final right now. At the very least, they are not humiliated in Round 1, posting a historic 65-12-5 record just to blow a 3-1 lead to the eight-seed.
Do the Leafs Still Fire Dubas, Hire Treliving?
We begin to steer into speculative rather than definitive territory here. The Maple Leafs lost in five games to the Panthers after finally vaulting over their round-one hurdles against the Lightning. For a brief period, joy and jubilation filled the streets of Toronto, will the ‘this is our year’ chants finally having merit. As the story went, fast-forward two weeks, and GM Dubas is fired. Fans and media deem team president Brendan Shanahan as a villain or hero, depending on who is voicing their opinion, and a directionless franchise emerges with Brad Treliving at the helm.
If the Maple Leafs were to lose to the Bruins, which would be the probable result if the April 11 tilt between the Blackhawks and Penguins swung the other way, the reaction would be different, despite stinging similarly. Losing to the best regular season team ever, and likely, the best team ever, given the competitive level the Maple Leafs had, would be respectable, even commendable. While losing to the Bruins for a third time during the Auston Matthews era would be gut-wrenching, it is doubtful it would have led to Dubas’ firing and all of his and Shanahans’ dirty laundry getting aired out.
Recap: What the 26 Seconds Meant
So let us recap. Twenty-six seconds in the third period of game 81 in the Penguins’ schedule against the lowly Blackhawks, where Athanasiou scored the second of the two goals, proving to be the game-winner in a shocking, bouncing, confusing fashion led to: the Penguins missing the playoffs and allowing the Panthers to squeak in as the second wild-card spot. The Panthers proceeded to upset the Bruins, leading to the biggest collapse by a Presidents’ Trophy-winning team in NHL history. They defeated the Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes en route to their second Stanley Cup Final appearance in franchise history. The Maple Leafs lost in five games to the Panthers in equally humiliating fashion to the Bruins, fired GM Dubas and hired Treliving while sending the city into pandemonium.
The Canadiens miss out on a lottery pick, instead picking in the thirties with their second 1st-round pick. At the same time, the Blackhawks leapfrog the Blue Jackets, finishing with the third-best odds to win the 2023 NHL Draft Lottery instead, eventually winning the right to select Bedard. An unthinkable, mind-boggling chain of events stemming from just 26 seconds of a meaningless game in April between the Penguins and Blackhawks. Madness.