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Gajtka: My Friends, These Are the Good Old Days

Are these ever tremendous times for Pittsburgh pro hockey fans. Maybe the best of times.

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Jeanine Leach / Icon Sportswire

In between trying to figure out the Penguins’ ideal line combinations and whether Chad Ruhwedel really is better than Matt Hunwick and if Jim Rutherford should’ve hunted a backup goalie before the trade deadline, I had a realization.

Holy hell, are these ever great times for Pittsburgh pro hockey fans. Maybe the best of times.

I realize it’s not fashionable to simply appreciate something. We’ve got to dissect, nitpick and search for greater meaning. I’m as guilty as anyone of clinging to that mentality at times. That’s partially due to my job, but I’ve always been the type to not accept a good thing with no reservations.

For just a few minutes, though, let’s pull back and realize what we’re looking at here.

The Penguins, fresh off winning consecutive Stanley Cup championships for the first time in the NHL’s salary-cap era, have risen from a highly-questionable first three months to practically wrapping up a playoff berth with four weeks to go in the regular season. They have two truly generational players still producing like superstars, plus two others who would be at the top of the marquee for all but a few teams in the league. They have a 23-year-old goalie who’s lifted the Cup twice.

This is not normal!

To further bang the point home, Flyers fans finally have a decent team to cheer for, but they still haven’t won a Cup in four decades and had their arena overrun by Eagles-related delirium during an important rivalry game Wednesday. The Capitals are just hoping they don’t play doormat in yet another Penguins championship run this spring.

Dan Bylsma is narrating highlights on NHL Network as I write this. James Neal suffered the indignity of losing to his former team in last year’s Final, not to mention watching the player for whom he was traded score the clincher. Ray Shero is back on his feet in Newark, but his Devils still have some road to travel.

Not to play to schadenfreude beyond the reaches of good taste, but suffice it to say that keeping up with the Joneses isn’t exactly a concern at Penguins headquarters. It’s not all about the past, either. The one team that can match them for cap-era Cups, the Blackhawks, is residing in last place and will miss the playoffs after back-to-back first-round exits.

Zooming further back, only the Canadiens (10) have more post-Original Six championships than the Penguins’ five, and only the Oilers can even match that number. And with the exception of a couple years near the start of the previous decade, this franchise has had the world’s most dynamic offensive player, if not two of the best, at its disposal for over 30 consecutive years.

I mean, really.

If you’re reading this site, you’re likely very aware of all these flattering facts, plus even more. But it’s healthy to remember this sort of thing while in the midst of the angst and anxiety that accompanies a six-month regular season, to say nothing of the peripatetic nature of the playoffs.

Injured? You need a lawyer. Call Joshua R. Lamm.

There’s a chance you’ve taken a moment or two — whether it be last summer after the parade down the Boulevard or at some point during this quest for a three-peat — to ‘let it soak in,’ to use the sports cliché. Actually, if you’re an all-around Pittsburgh sports fan, it’s quite likely you’ve had an epiphany of appreciation for the Penguins.

Just look at the surrounding landscape …

• Pitt basketball just paid its coach several million dollars to go away after the Panthers were the only Division I team to go winless in conference.

• The Pirates just wrapped an offseason in which they jettisoned two former foundational players, while counting only Corey Dickerson as a legitimate major-league addition.

• Even Steelers fans are feeling hung over, after another disappointing finish despite possessing three of the top offensive players in pro football.

Speaking of the local football club, these Penguins have grown into this generation’s version of the 1970s Super Steelers. What was once a ‘what-if’ bunch has become a ‘what-next’ kind of team in less than two years. A fourth title in under a decade would lift the Penguins even higher, alongside the Islanders and Oilers of the ’80s, the Habs of the ’70s and, honestly, any other dynastic NHL franchise.

Again, nothing you didn’t know. However, before the playoff hype starts to vibrate and we all get into reactionary mode, there’s value in realizing the rarity of the situation. Be sure Mike Sullivan has periodically reminded his group of this throughout what’s been a challenging season.

Much like those Penguins, there’s time to take a deep breath before diving back into the typical debates and anxieties that go with following a contending team. These are the good old days for Pittsburgh’s Boys of Winter. It’s OK to let your guard down and enjoy the experience.

In fact, my friends, that’s an order.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Denny Baker

    March 9, 2018 at 8:32 am

    I truly enjoyed your column! We need to live in the moment or at least in the decade 🙂

    • Dan Kingerski

      March 9, 2018 at 12:41 pm

      Denny, that made me laugh out loud! Well done

  2. HarkeyPuck

    March 9, 2018 at 9:30 am

    Totally agree. I’ve been saying this all year. And if they happen to raise the silver chalice again in June, this group of players will go down as the best Penguin team ever and one of the best NHL teams in the last half century. Pens fans, enjoy what we have. We could have been watching Kansas City…

    • Matt Gajtka

      March 9, 2018 at 12:28 pm

      Not sure how close they actually were to moving, but it sure felt close on the outside.

  3. Jack McCrory

    March 9, 2018 at 10:07 am

    They should have brought the veteran goalie up now and left DeSmith to keep playing in WBS DeSmith doesn’t gain anything sitting behind Jarry right now

    • Matt Gajtka

      March 9, 2018 at 11:06 am

      Leighton?

  4. James

    March 9, 2018 at 10:11 am

    Great article, I’ve been saying this for ages. I started watching the Pens in late 80’s over here in the UK. I was only 10 at the time and I thought the Golden Age was passing me by as I watched on a tiny TV in my bedroom in the early 90s. Well this is the Golden Age, right now. The Lemieux/Jagr era for all it’s glory was apparently just a warm up for Crosby/Malkin.

    The Penguins are the dominant franchise of the NHL of the last 30 years, but this right now, is the Golden Age.

    So revel in this. I know I do. It’s a second bite of the cherry for me. Now we have the internet I can watch every single game in HD on demand and now I’m 40 (not 10) I can even fly over for a few games every now and again.

    • Matt Gajtka

      March 9, 2018 at 12:27 pm

      Good for you, James. How’s the hockey following over there?

  5. Mike

    March 9, 2018 at 12:48 pm

    Matt – great article and follow up question. Is there any sports team across the Big 4 that has enjoyed this type of run of greatest players in the sport? One could argue New England, and I would agree from a championship perspective but not from exciting great players to watch. It’s just Brady.

    I mean, from 1987 to 2001, the Pens not only won 2 cups but also had Lemieux and Jagr win 11 of the 14 scoring championships (Gretzky had the other 3). Then came 2005-present, with 3 more Stanley Cups and several more scoring championships for Crosby and Malkin. They had 4 of the 10 (or less) best players for a 30 year period. That is unreal.

    • Matt Gajtka

      March 10, 2018 at 12:34 pm

      I don’t think any team can match the level of star power, really. Maybe the Yankees back in the day with Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, Ford, Maris, etc.

  6. Scott

    March 9, 2018 at 8:19 pm

    Nice reminder to appreciate what we’ve got. If our biggest concern is Sheary’s slump or whether our #6D is good enough to help us win a third straight Cup, we’re leading a charmed existence.

    • dave burtt

      March 12, 2018 at 4:08 pm

      The Niners did pretty well, transitioning from Montana to Young. That’s as close as I can come to the Lemieux to Crosby transition. But I don’t think the Niners had a Jagr-equivalent for Montana, and you can’t count Jerry Rice twice (to account for Malkin). So we win.

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