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Molinari: Penguins Earned Their Season’s Sour Outcome



Pittsburgh Penguins, Mike Sullivan

The Pittsburgh Penguins will now sit out the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second consecutive spring because Washington beat Philadelphia, 2-1, at Wells Fargo Center Tuesday evening.

Sure, that was enough to formally eliminate the Penguins from contention for a playoff berth, but the harsh reality is that they played their way into this outcome much earlier in the season.

They did when they allowed Anaheim’s Mason McTavish to get a game-winning, shorthanded goal with 12.8 seconds left in regulation Oct. 30 at PPG Paints Arena, immediately after the Penguins had failed to capitalize on an extended 5-on-3 power play.

When Calgary ran off three goals during the final 10 minutes of the third period to mutate a 3-1 Penguins lead into a 4-3 Flames victory, with Calgary generating the deciding goal 50 seconds before the end of regulation.

When the Penguins failed to protect a 4-0 lead at Colorado March 24 and had to settle for one point after the Avalanche reeled off five unanswered goals, the final one coming in overtime.

When Columbus, a few light years behind the rest of the Eastern Conference, rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the last 11 minutes of the third period at Nationwide Arena March 30 before winning in overtime.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins, despite having a No. 1 power-play unit manned largely by future Hall of Famers, failed to manufacture a man-advantage goal in 53 of their first 79 games.

When they routinely surrendered goals within a couple of minutes — sometimes, on the very next shift — after scoring one themselves.

When they repeatedly were unable to hold multiple-goal leads, and proved to be particularly adept at squandering them during third periods.

Considering all of that, it should be no surprise that they’ll play a meaningless game in their regular-season finale for the second year in a row when they face the New York Islanders Wednesday at UBS Arena.

The Pittsburgh Penguins entered training camp seven months ago with a renewed vigor and enthusiasm, in part because of personnel moves made by Kyle Dubas during his first few months as president of hockey operations and general manager. Most had what seemed to be an earnest belief that they were capable of challenging for the franchise’s sixth Stanley Cup.

While that wasn’t a particularly realistic assessment — there are too many teams in this league that are younger, faster and deeper — there was little, if any, reason to doubt that this team was capable of returning to the playoffs, assuming its roster wasn’t gutted by devastating injuries to key players.

Which it hasn’t been.

Fact is, no fewer than six players who fill prominent roles — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson, Marcus Pettersson and Lars Eller — have appeared in each of the Penguins’ first 81 games.

Sure, they lost first-line wingers Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel for significant stretches because they were hurt, but hockey is an often-violent sport. Injuries happen, and coping with them is part of the challenge to be successful.

The Penguins actually weren’t challenged, in that regard, nearly as much as one might expect for a team that was the NHL’s oldest for much of the season. Especially when so many of their core players are on the far side of 30.

That this group — particularly its most important members — was so experienced makes it all the more confounding that the Penguins were prone to such frequent letdowns and breakdowns.

Most of these guys have been around long enough to understand that points earned in October and November count just as much as the ones picked up during the stretch drive, and that relinquishing them on a regular basis because of lapses in focus and discipline can have professionally catastrophic consequences.

If that reality somehow had escaped any of them, starting their offseason in a couple of days surely should deliver the message.

The 8-1-3 streak the Penguins will take into the Islanders game is evidence of this team’s capabilities when it plays with commitment and urgency, qualities that were missing far too often during the first five-plus months of the season.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of how 2023-24 played out is that the Pittsburgh Penguins wasted a remarkable performance by Crosby, who consistently played a 200-foot game that no one could reasonably expect of a 36-year-old.

Whether he’ll be able to replicate that — or even something close to it — at age 37 is impossible to predict, although it’s been clear for years that betting against Crosby is a good way to go broke.

Of course, even if he has another exceptional season in 2024-25, it likely won’t matter if so much of the team again fails to produce to its potential.

If that happens once more, the Penguins can expect the 2025 playoffs to proceed without them. They will have gotten precisely what they earned — just as they did this season.