A game between two teams that didn't make the playoffs set the Florida Panthers on course for the Stanley Cup Finals and had an outsized impact on the future of multiple NHL franchises.
- I want you to close your eyes and think about where you were on April 11, 2023. Chances are, you don't remember. It was a Tuesday, and Tuesdays don't tend to be memorable. But in the NHL, it absolutely was because a game was being played in Pittsburgh between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks that changed the course of NHL history.
We don't need to get into the game too much. The Penguins desperately needed a win to keep their playoff push alive, and the Blackhawks were kind of hoping for a loss so they could keep their chances of getting Connor Bedard at the highest possible level. Unfortunately for the Penguins, the Blackhawks won 5 to 2, even though Pittsburgh outshot them 40 to 25. It was an unexpected result, but the sort of thing that happens all the time in the NHL.
Things begin to get interesting with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They missed the playoffs by a single point for the first time since 2005-2006, Sidney Crosby's rookie season. As a result of missing the playoffs, they decided to clean house, getting rid of Brian Burke and Ron Hextall at the top of their front office structure. We're looking at a new era of Pittsburgh Penguins hockey, and it may not have happened if they won this game.
Meanwhile, everyone knows the Florida Panthers' part in this story. They made the playoffs by a single point. And if the Penguins had won here, they would have been at home playing golf for the last few weeks, Sergei Bobrovsky would have been considered an overpaid anchor on the team instead of a playoff hero, and Matthew Tkachuk wouldn't be a guy discussed as the next face of the NHL.
The teams that lost to Florida also figure into this. Boston, Toronto, Carolina, any of them might be fighting for the Stanley Cup if Pittsburgh is able to get rid of the Panthers by beating the Blackhawks. Toronto, maybe this is the year, and the Stanley Cup is paraded through the city for the first time in over half a century. Boston might be looking at their last dance situation with Patrice Bergeron. And the Carolina Hurricanes, perhaps, would stop answering questions about whether they'd be able to find enough offense.
Any of these situations are in play. Or, just like the Florida Panthers, the Pittsburgh Penguins might have made an improbable run, one that showed that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang still have what it takes to be a championship-level core.
The effects of this game go beyond who wins the Stanley Cup in 2022-2023. That's because it had a massive effect on the lottery odds. The Chicago Blackhawks, if they had lost to Pittsburgh, would have had the best odds to get Connor Bedard, which sounds like a good thing considering he's a generational star, potentially. But instead, they ended up with the third-best odds. And it was those third-best lottery balls that allowed them to get Bedard.
If they had been in first, like Anaheim was, they would have gone home empty-handed. So winning this game, ironically, ended up being essential to their tanking effort. If Chicago had lost this game, it would have been the Columbus Blue Jackets with the all-important third-best odds, and they would have been able to integrate Bedard into a lineup already including stars like Johnny Gaudreau and Patrick Laine. It might not have been a recipe for instant success, but it would have been a more interesting start to Bedard's career in terms of being competitive early.
The last team affected by this fateful game is the Montreal Canadiens. A little bit of a more subtle one here. But Montreal traded for the Florida Panthers' 2023 first-round draft pick in the Ben Chiarot deal. And at the time, they thought that this would have been at the very end of the first round.
As it turns out, that is where it will be because the Panthers are playing for a Stanley Cup. However, if Florida had missed the playoffs and fallen short of the Penguins' point total, this would have been the 14th overall pick, an absolute steal for Montreal that they're not going to get.
The NHL's always trying to sell you, the fan, the idea that every single regular-season game matters, and a lot of the time that's an exaggeration. In this case, it was right on the money.