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Gajtka: Three Years After Rock Bottom, Have Penguins Done Enough?

They’re still 12 wins shy of more glory, but there’s just one more hill to climb before it’s all gravy.

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Do you remember when Carl Hagelin sunk the Penguins?

At this point, after back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, it’s understandable if you don’t, so here’s a helpful reminder:

That sudden-death goal, capping a five-game defeat at the hands of the Rangers, might’ve been the low point for the Sidney CrosbyEvgeni Malkin Penguins. After barely sneaking into the playoffs in the only full season of Mike Johnston‘s tenure, the Penguins resorted to an undignified rope-a-dope style just so they could hang with the President’s Trophy-winning Rangers.

The Penguins played five one-goal games in that series, including a pair of overtime decisions, but they still lost anyway. Two months later, the Blackhawks beat the Lightning in the Cup Final, giving Chicago three championships in its 21st Century renaissance, while the Penguins were left with just the one from 2009, almost achieved ahead of schedule.

Not only that, Hagelin’s dagger delivered the seventh consecutive overtime loss in the playoffs for the Penguins. On top of the feeling that this group of players appeared to waste its opportunity to be transcendent, it also seemed to be developing some sort of low-grade postseason hex.

Paradigm Shift

What a difference three years make, huh?

With Sunday’s all-guns-firing 8-5 win in Philadelphia, the Penguins have now claimed nine consecutive playoff series, matching the run of the 1997-99 Red Wings, who were the last team to try for three Cups in a row. They have won 36 of their past 54 playoff games, all with Mike Sullivan standing behind the bench.

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What’s more, the Penguins haven’t had to sell their high-flying souls to recapture their potential. They play full-octane, high-pressure hockey, taking advantage of roster additions orchestrated by Jim Rutherford — one of which was Hagelin — and the development of several Ray Shero-era draft picks.

If you’re a Pittsburgh Hockey Now reader, you’re probably well aware of the franchise’s revitalization. But, with Chicago looking at a possible rebuild after missing the playoffs, there’s no question who’s the king of the NHL’s castle. (Pregame pageantry aside, it’s not the Golden Knights, at least not yet.)

And with the aforementioned vanquishing of the Flyers, this group of Penguins has minimized the memory of that 2012 first-round loss to Philadelphia, which was a meltdown by any definition of the word. If the 2015 loss to New York was going out with a whimper, 2012 was going out with a bang, but it was still part of a stretch in which the Penguins lost six of nine playoff series, with Crosby and Malkin available for all but one of those.

One More Hill?

Now, as they await the winner of Capitals-Blue Jackets, the Penguins have advanced to the second round in nine of their 13 playoff years with the most potent 1-2 punch in pro hockey.

After a regular season that could be charitably characterized as touch-and-go, they avoided an unsightly first-round flameout that ominously loomed from the moment Sean Couturier‘s long shot bounced off Brian Dumoulin‘s skate and past Matt Murray late in Game 5, extending the series.

But the two-time defending champs are indeed through to the NHL’s elite eight, four wins from their sixth conference finals appearance in 11 years. Only two teams this century — the 2012-14 Kings and the 2013-15 Blackhawks — have gotten that far in three straight years.

If we’re being honest, though, there is a healthy contingent of Penguins fans who remember the 1992-93 club tearing up the league and raising hopes of a three-peat, only to lose in seven games to the Islanders in the second round. (For those easily triggered, I won’t embed the David Volek goal here.)

Yes, winning three titles in a row would be remarkable, but making it out of the Metropolitan Division bracket would actually be the final gremlin on the exorcism list, at least for fans not old enough to remember the four-game collapse against the Islanders in 1975. Unlike the Penguins of 25 years ago, this year’s team won’t be heavily favored against Washington or Columbus, although expectations remain high.

So rest up, boys. You’re still 12 wins shy of glory, sure, but there’s just one more hill to climb before it’s all gravy.

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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.

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11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. il'ja

    April 23, 2018 at 12:14 pm

    In 1993, I was in Akademgorodok, Russia – in central Siberia – listening on shortwave as our boys fell to the Islanders and the 3PEAT dream died. I have never seen the Volek goal and never plan to. Some things can’t be unseen. I thank you for not linking it.

    I spent too much of this Flyers’ series waiting for “the Volek moment”, but it never came. It surely still could, but two things seem true about this push toward 3Peatville: 1)This isn’t Siberia anymore and I’ve got to show more faith and, 2) in this iteration of Penguin Playoff appearances, the team is aware of its shortcomings, but the very real ‘veteran experience’ of Rust, Guentzel, Murray, and Sheary is adept at overcoming sloppy play. These guys, collectively, are showing themselves to be good enough to offset our offseason veteran losses, but that doesn’t mean we should expect a string of 7-0 victories.

    It wouldn’t be playoff hockey without tense moments and it wouldn’t be human if it didn’t include some losses. But, on balance, I can’t believe Pens’ fans have any right to be dissatisfied with what we’ve seen so far. The frantic, discombobulated play of the Flyers in yesterday’s 3rd period was no accident. They were UP 4-2 and suddenly they couldn’t skate straight. That was the result of the work of some outstanding young skaters. Uncatchable skaters. In a word, we’ve got a whole squad of Voleks on the ice on any given night. + Sid + Geno + Horny +Sheahan.

    You do the math. Go Pens!

    • Matt Gajtka

      April 23, 2018 at 1:56 pm

      I’m not going to be able to top that comment so I’ll just say thanks for reading! 🙂

      • il'ja

        April 23, 2018 at 2:06 pm

        Yeah, I probably deserve two minutes for piling on metaphors. Sorry about that. Great, balanced piece. Really do enjoy the site, but being so far away makes timely reading problematic. Can’t keep up with the Commentariat here or on Twitter. Everything is “posted 9 hours ago”. Still, great stuff and a welcome read.

        • Matt Gajtka

          April 23, 2018 at 2:16 pm

          Feel free to comment anytime, my friend. I’ll always get to it.

  2. Fort McHenry

    April 23, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    I remember, well, that 1975 collapse against the Islanders. I’d grown up in Murrysville, and my father took me to games at the Civic Arena for my birthday each year. I’d started following the Pens in the early ’70s, during the days of Syl Apps, Lowell MacDonald, Al McDonough, Bryan “Bugsy” Watson, Ken Schinkel, Jean Pronovost and more. Jim Rutherford was the goalie.

    Then my Dad was transferred to Baltimore (where I still live, a Pirates, Pens and Steelers fan trapped “behind enemy lines” during football season … lol).

    Another great column, Matt. As a career long journalist and columnist myself, I search out your stuff … and I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. This team is a great one … and has etched its place in the history books – no matter what happens from here.

    It was our second year here in Maryland, I believe, and we were able to pick up the Pens games on my specially set up receiver. Up those three games and needing just one more, I was stunned when the collapse came. It stung nearly as bad as the Bob Moose wild pitch against the Big Red Machine in that 72 playoff – Roberto’s last.

    Incidentally, was at an Orioles game last year and ran into Ross Grimsley, who like many former players does fan outreach. After he handed his World Series ring to my 10 year old with the words “try it on” (I have a pic … he’s the nicest gent you’ll ever meet), I reminded him of the two-hit shutout he threw against my Buccos in that series. He smiled that someone remembered and said … “here’s a trivia question for you .. name the player who got those only two hits.”

    You guessed it … it was Clemente.

    • Matt Gajtka

      April 23, 2018 at 2:19 pm

      Ha! Awesome anecdote there, and thanks for the compliment on the columns.

      I wish I could’ve seen the Pens back in their ‘blue era,’ even though they had more than their share of heartbreak! Heck, I don’t even recall the first two Cups without a lot of video assistance. It’s been a heck of a franchise to follow.

      • Fort McHenry

        April 23, 2018 at 5:02 pm

        Thanks, Matt, for the nice response.

        I do have two quick questions for you … if you had a moment…

        First, have you heard anymore about Geno’s injury … and what it means for the next “set?”

        Second, what’s up with Matt Murray? He was like The Terminator in a coupla games and like the ants killed by The Terminex Man in others. He’s been like that all year … Is it an issue of focus … is he just wearing down (something I believe you’ve raised concerns about in some of your fine work).

        And while I know it’s far too early to draw conclusions, I did see that his save pct. has fallen each year while his GAA has risen.

        Some of that is emblematic of this whole team. … and I know you’ve said defensive lapses are part of it. Is that the cause, or is there more to it?

        I realize that I’m just a fan … a spectator. You’re a true “expert.” So I put a lot more stock in what you think than what I’m seeing (again, it’s why I seek out your stuff, which is great).

        Makes you realize just how lucky we were to have two superb goalies at one time …

        TNX!

        • Matt Gajtka

          April 23, 2018 at 9:27 pm

          I basically gave Matt a pass for the regular season, considering what he went through with his dad and how many great chances the Penguins gave up. The concussion in March didn’t help either. I think he’s an above-average goalie in this league, but he’s not usually going to steal a game for a team. And that’s OK with this Pens team. The question will be … is it good enough when Crosby and Malkin are in their mid-30s?

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