Every NFL season, when the final team loses for the first time, members of the 1972 Dolphins get together and pop a celebratory bottle of champagne. No team since then has finished the NFL season undefeated. And while this year’s Dolphins are making the trek up to the snowy confines of Heinz Field for a Wild Card tilt this Sunday, it’s the Penguins who should be popping champagne today.
Columbus lost. Finally.
For the first time since November, the Columbus Blue Jackets lost a hockey game. The 5-0 drubbing by Washington halted a 16-game win streak by Columbus, which not only pushed them three points clear of the Penguins in the Metro division with a game in hand, but had them on the brink of history.
Columbus was one game from tying the 1992-93 Penguins for the longest win streak in NHL history, and now that’s gone.
Pop the cork, Mario, your record is safe. (Note: Guarantee Jagr was popping a cork somewhere in Florida last night without even knowing why.)
The run for Columbus was remarkable, if not history making. The Blue Jackets beat Tampa Bay on Black Friday before falling in a shootout at Florida — Jagr scored the only Panthers goal in regulation — to give Columbus a 11-5-4 record through 20 games. The Penguins were 12-5-3 through 20 games and moved to 13-6-3 by Nov. 26, for 29 points to the Jackets’ 26. The Penguins then won eight of their next nine games and not only failed to extend their Metro division lead, they lost points to Columbus.
By Dec. 20, the Blue Jackets had tied the Flyers for the longest win streak of the season with 10 straight, then hosted the Penguins on Dec. 22 and netting seven goals, six on Matt Murray, after falling down 1-0. The 7-1 drubbing put the Jackets into first place in the Metro. Despite Pittsburgh winning the next three games, they were unable to regain the division lead before 2016 came to a close.
While Pittsburgh stays dormant during their league-agreed bye week — the Pens haven’t played since New Year’s Eve, which is nonsense — Columbus won their first game of the new year, a 3-1 victory over Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers on January 3, to get to 58 points in just 37 games. Pittsburgh, still sitting around waiting to get back on the ice, are now tied with the Rangers at 55 points, though having played three fewer games. New York and Columbus play on Saturday, the day before the Pens finally get back on the ice against Tampa Bay, which means Pittsburgh could start their 2017 leg either five points back in the division, or in third place. Or both.
Columbus’ run was spectacular.
They won 16 straight games and only three went to overtime, with two victories secured in a shootout. The last time the Jackets lost in regulation was Nov 23., a span of 18 games. (If you’re wondering what the record is for consecutive games with a point, it’s 34, held by the 1979-80 Flyers, who broke that record on Jan. 6, of all days.)
The Penguins win streak in 1993 wasn’t just longer than the Blue Jackets’ streak, it was better.
The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions were 39-21-6 after a 3-1 loss at the Rangers on March 5, 1993. When the season ended — the NHL played 84 games back then — the Pens were 56-21-7, the only blemish coming in a 6-6 tie with the Devils on the final day of the regular season.
Pittsburgh stayed hot in the first round of the playoffs that year, beating the Devils in five games, but fell to the New York Islanders in seven games — losing Game 7 at home in overtime — to end their epic Cup run.
The NHL was different back then, surely. For one there was no bye week in January, but for two, scoring was way up compared to today’s game. The Penguins netted 96 goals in their 17-game win streak, allowing just 48. (They averaged 4.37 goals per game that season, giving up 3.19, besting those averages to 5.65 and 2.82 during the streak.)
During the just-ended streak for Columbus, the Jackets scored 64 goals, allowing just 27. That’s a goals-against average over that span of a ridiculous 1.69, while scoring 4 per win, more than a goal above the league average. (Through 37 games Columbus is averaging 3.43 goals scored and, with five allowed on Thursday, giving up 2.11 per game this season.)
The Penguins finished the 1992-93 season with 119 points, 10 clear of their next closest competitor in any division and the clear favorite to win another Stanley Cup. The Islanders finished that season in third place in the Patrick division, with just 87 points, then beat Washington in the first round in six games, including two double-OT wins, before beating the Pens in seven, taking the final two in that series before falling to the eventual Cup-champion Canadiens in the conference finals.
That season proved historic for more than just the Pens win streak, as it was the last time Montreal, the most storied franchise in hockey, won the Stanley Cup, or even got to the Stanley Cup Final. It took the Penguins 15 seasons to get back to the Stanley Cup Final after their 1992 victory. Pittsburgh hoisted the Cup for the first time since the early ’90s the year after that and, obviously, last season as well.
So maybe the lesson in all this is that win streaks are cool, and Columbus should be proud of what they’ve accomplished, but hoisting the Cup is better, and Pittsburgh, despite not leading the Metro, is still in great position to do that in back-to-back years for the first time since the ’90s.
There would be a bit more champagne for that than there might be today. (Though not for Jagr, surely.) Still, holding onto the NHL win-streak record for a little longer — especially when it helps this year’s Pens keep pace in the division — is pretty sweet, too.