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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.

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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