PITTSBURGH — At 13 years, it is the longest active playoff streak in the NHL. Since the Pittsburgh Penguins erased the free agent free-for-all failure of 2005-06 in which the organization said goodbye to the player version of Mario Lemieux and Hall of Fame GM Craig Patrick, the Sidney Crosby led organization has not missed the playoffs since. It has been 13 straight seasons and counting.
In the first year of the streak, 2006-07, Evgeni Malkin won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie and the Penguins made their first playoff appearance since the 2001 Eastern Conference Final with Jaromir Jagr and Lemieux.
The streak is long enough to extend back to those bushy-haired, bright-eyed teenage superstars like Crosby, Malkin, and Marc-Andre Fleury who was the only one old enough to legally order a beer. Even an 18-year-old Kris Letang played seven games that season.
It’s been a long time.
“It’s not easy. As you can see it came down to Game 81. There are lots of things which can happen over the course of the year,” Sidney Crosby said. “You’ve got to earn it. It’s a good feeling.”
The Penguins playoff streak continued for a year without Crosby as he dealt with a concussion and a neck injury after the 2011 Winter Classic. And the Penguins missed Evgeni Malkin in the 2011 playoffs, too. Jordan Staal led the Penguins to a 3-1 series lead against Tampa Bay before they finally folded and lost the series in seven games. Who could forget 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson standing on his head?
Letang who has been around for 12 of the 13 years took a different tone and certainly a more honest assessment. The Penguins have been able to amass and keep star players.
“I don’t expect less than that. With the roster we put (on the ice) every year, with the quality of players like Sid and Geno [sic], and Phil and these guys, we should be in the playoffs every year,” Letang said.
Letang has earned veteran status this season with a bounce-back year which included Norris Trophy talk until he missed most of the last six weeks with an upper-body injury. He has 56 points (16g, 40a) in 64 games this season.
“Our division has always been a tough one. They’re big market teams and so those teams spend to the cap, so automatically your division is a lot stronger.”
Also having Alex Ovechkin a few hours away in Washington has kept the Penguins on their toes, too. And for good measure add natural rivalries with Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and the emerging rivalry with Columbus which uses the Penguins logo on their dartboard and it is a rough road each season.
“There’s going to be good teams who don’t make the playoffs. Every year there is and with the parity in the league, it’s not an easy feat year in and year out,” Mike Sullivan said. “That this organization has had the long-standing success that they’ve had is a reflection of their leadership and their professionalism.”
“It starts with our ownership in Mario and Ron (Burkle), but our management team with David Morehouse and Jim Rutherford, these guys just do it right in my opinion.”
Back in 2006 when the Penguins playoff streak began, Sullivan a young head coach who was one year removed from being fired as the Boston Bruins head coach and just about to be hired in Tampa Bay as an assistant coach by a man who would become his mentor and friend, John Tortorella.
Yeah, it’s been a long time.
“It’s special. It’s not easy to do. It says a lot about the team and the organization as a whole,” goalie Matt Murray said. “It goes all the way to Wilkes [sic], too and how they develop players. The consistency is pretty cool.”
Murray is one of several former farmhands who spent significant time with the Penguins AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Casey DeSmith, Jake Guentzel, Teddy Blueger, Garrett Wilson, Bryan Rust, Dominik Simon, Brian Dumoulin, Zach Aston-Reese, Adam Johnson, and Zach Trotman all played there. Sullivan also returned to head coaching with the WBS Penguins after eight years as an assistant with Tortorella.
The Penguins playoff streak has seen the highs of the 2009 Stanley Cup which seemed like the continuation of the minor move to acquire aging veteran, Bill Guerin. That move launched the Penguins as Guerin immediately became a fan favorite and is still with the organization as the assistant GM.
The streak has seen the low points like stumbling into the 2011 playoffs without Crosby or Malkin. Being dominated and embarrassed by Boston in the 2012-13 Eastern Conference Final and future Hall of Fame right winger Jarome Iginla being shuffled to the left wing.
In 2015, the Penguins which played with only five defensemen for the final couple weeks of the season because of injury and cap limitations. They didn’t qualify for the postseason until the final day of the regular season. That team was bounced quickly by the New York Rangers.
Through it all, there have been a few constants…like living rent-free inside the Washington Capitals headspace, wild playoff battles with the Philadelphia Flyers which have included less disciplined hockey than the average mite game and the ever-present puncher’s chance because they have the best 1-2 center punch in the game.
In 2006-07 George W. Bush was still the President of the United States, Barack Obama was a junior Senator, Donald Trump had a reality TV show and no Twitter accounts existed.
Rob Scuderi was a spry 28-year-old defenseman and Brooks Orpik was a 26-year-old stalwart defenseman.
Yeah, it’s been a long, long time.