It has been a very long time since the Pittsburgh Penguins last missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The only time Sidney Crosby didn’t continue play in April was in his rookie season, when the Penguins were entering the Ray Shero era after longtime General Manager Craig Patrick was dismissed and then-head coach Eddie Olczyk was replaced by Michel Therrien. It was the first year NBC broadcasted games, with other nationally-televised game lost on OLN, which later became Versus, then NBC Sports Network, which died due to Peacock as the NHL left for ESPN and Turner in 2021-22.
To make myself feel older, I was a sophomore in high school the last time the Penguins failed to qualify for the playoffs.
Every year since 2008, when Pittsburgh qualified for the Stanley Cup Final, losing to the Red Wings, fans have expected deep playoff runs and a shot at the championship. Obviously, that hasn’t happened, but titles in 2009, 2016 and 2017 have made the Penguins one of the more successful NHL teams since the year-long lockout in 2004-05, becoming the first in this new era to win back-to-back titles, which some thought to be impossible, but has now been done by them and the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2020 and 2021, who almost made it a three-peat last season.
16-straight years of postseason appearances is quite the accomplishment in sports today, especially with most leagues establishing salary caps and allowing bad teams to use the draft, free agency and their minor league club to become contenders.
The road to 17-straight for this year’s Penguins team will come down to the final game. Currently in a battle for one of two wild card spots, Pittsburgh has been erratic. From blowing 3-0 leads, to having those moments that provide fans optimism, only to falter again.
It happens to all great teams. The Chicago Blackhawks, who won three Stanley Cups between 2010 and 2015, have been in rebuild mode for some time, falling all the way to the basement of their division.
For the Penguins, unlike the Blackhawks, there remains veteran talent, but if your supporting cast of 3rd and 4th liners, and defensive units don’t gel, you may have a winning record, but that is not enough to solidify your spot in the playoffs anymore.
If mid-April comes, and the Penguins are on the outside of the Eastern Conference wild card, there will be finger-pointing everywhere. At Head Coach Mike Sullivan, General Manager Ron Hextall, the ownership: Fenway Sports Group, and the teams elders: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
Whatever happens, the Penguins will either see a remarkable playoff streak end, or they will just get in, probably losing the Boston Bruins in 5 games in the first round, marking the fifth-straight year they are bounced in the opening round.