When the Pittsburgh Penguins hosted the Chicago Blackhawks on April 11, it looked like a consequential game but one with a near-certain outcome.
The Penguins needed a win for their playoff push, and the hollowed-out Blackhawks didn’t figure to provide much resistance on the tail end of their tanking season.
Behind a 38-save performance from Petr Mrazek — a goaltender who posted an .894 save percentage in 2022-23 — Chicago pulled an upset. Six weeks later, the NHL is still reeling from those 60 minutes of inexplicable hockey.
That starts with the Florida Panthers, who just advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. If the Penguins had won that game, Pittsburgh’s point total would’ve been 93 to Florida’s 92, leaving the Panthers out of the postseason.
If all the fateful game on April 11 had done was launch Florida’s playoff run, it would’ve been awfully influential, but Pittsburgh’s surprising loss had a far greater effect on the NHL.
It’s impossible to know how the Eastern Conference playoffs would’ve shaken out without Florida, but there are some inferences to be made. Boston is likely to have beaten Pittsburgh and would be the favorite to sit where the Panthers are now.
If that happened, the Bruins would have a “Last Dance” feel to them with top centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci’s futures up in the air. Losing to a Boston team coming off a historic regular-season would’ve been less painful for the Maple Leafs or Hurricanes, possibly making them less inclined to question their current direction.
In a scenario where Boston went down, either the Maple Leafs or Hurricanes would have a chance to slay their respective postseason demons. In Toronto’s case, a run to the Eastern Conference final would probably have been sufficient to change the narrative. Carolina likely would’ve needed to reach the Stanley Cup Final.
As it stands, things are already messy in Toronto. While Boston has been quieter, uncertainty abounds there and Carolina seems stable but a consistent failure to score in the playoffs could prompt a shakeup.
Pittsburgh also could’ve made the run Florida has, although that doesn’t seem likely with the Penguins lacking the game-changing goaltending that’s fuelled the Panthers.
The Penguins themselves
While it’s tough to envision the 2022-23 Penguins replicating the Panthers’ success, they might have made enough noise to keep their top front office executives employed.
Instead, Ron Hextall and Brian Burke were shown the door.
A new regime might end up being a positive step for the Penguins, although it’s too soon to know. Neither Hextall nor Burke had glowing track records and it’s possible Pittsburgh outperforming expectations in the playoffs could’ve kept the team tied to a duo that doesn’t inspire confidence.
It is worth noting that Pittsburgh appeared to be dysfunctional even before they missed the playoffs, but doing so made a regime-change decision easy.
Dubas has become one of the main characters of the NHL news cycle in recent weeks after expressing a desire to remain the Maple Leafs’ GM on May 15 and getting the boot four days later.
In a timeline where the Panthers’ failure to appear in the playoffs resulted in a deeper run for the Maple Leafs, he’d almost certainly have signed a lucrative long-term contract with Toronto. Now he’s a candidate to join the Penguins front office in a role that might not have been vacant under different circumstances.
It’s possible the Penguins would’ve washed out in the first round and the Maple Leafs would’ve lost to the Bruins in embarrassing fashion — and both teams would feel approximately the same way they do now. But if Dubas is Pittsburgh’s GM or president of hockey operations entering 2023-24, the April 11 game will have played a role in that.
The Chicago Blackhawks/Columbus Blue Jackets
Beating the Penguins didn’t initially seem like a positive development for a team hoping to maximize its chances of winning the NHL Draft Lottery, but it ultimately paid off.
If Chicago had lost to Pittsburgh, it would’ve finished the season with 57 points — the lowest total in the NHL. That would’ve given the team the best chances of landing Connor Bedard, but the team that had the best odds, the Anaheim Ducks, did not land the generational prospect.
In this scenario the Blue Jackets would’ve had the third-best odds, which is the spot Chicago won Bedard from. The young center would’ve had an opportunity to start his career with Johnny Gaudreau on his flank as opposed to joining Chicago’s barren roster.
A minor victim of all of this is Montreal, who owns Florida’s 2023 first-round pick thanks to the Ben Chariot deal.
When the Habs made the deal, they were acquiring the first-rounder of a team in the midst of a Presidents’ Trophy season that looked to be right in the middle of its competitive window.
They likely expected it to be a selection at the back of the round, but as Florida underperformed through the 2022-23 season it seemed that Montreal was going to grab a mid-round pick in what’s touted as one of the best draft classes in years. Thanks to the Penguins letting Florida into the playoffs, the Canadiens will now pick either 31st or 32nd.