Connect with us

Penguins

Saying Goodbye to the 2023-24 Penguins Season

Personal Anecdotes, Locker Room Scenes, and the Big Comeback

Published

on

Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Alex Nedeljkovic. Stanley Cup playoffs await

Our 2023-24 Pittsburgh Penguins coverage began with an extraordinary road trip to Halifax, one of the great hidden gems of the North American continent. It ended on Long Island, which features passionate fans and an area with all of the charm of unreachable eczema.

It’s time to say goodbye to this Penguins team. How much the next iteration resembles it is anyone’s guess, though after missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year, stasis is not the smart play.

In between those road trips, there was a seeming multiplicity of negativity, frustration, and despair. The mood headed downward faster and faster, everyone wondering if a turnaround was possible.

If you’d like a little behind-the-curtain dirt, far too often, the gallows humor among the media included the argument over who would ask coach Mike Sullivan the only question possible: “What was that?”

I’ve cleaned up the wording.

There were many games when the walk from the press box to the locker room was quiet as we each pondered possible questions in the face of another inexplicably bad performance.

That 7-0 beatdown in Toronto on Dec. 16 will forever stick as possibly the worst game I’ve ever seen, but otherwise, most will wash away.

After that game, it was undeniable that the Penguins were broken. (Read more: Penguins Grades. Internal Frustration, Something is Deeply Wrong).

Things seemingly cratered at the NHL trade deadline when Dubas traded Jake Guentzel. Exasperation became something akin to depression. The number of players sitting silently in their locker stalls, heads in hands, or starting at the ceiling grew.

“I think there were some games there where I just didn’t really recognize our team. I was surprised how far from our best we were in some of those games,” Lars Eller said Thursday. “That hurt us, amongst other things.”

Eller also admitted it took too long for the team to pick itself up after the NHL trade deadline. I’ve never before seen a Penguins team want to quit, but that team flirted with the idea.

The heartbroken desolation that filled the room in the days before and after the NHL trade deadline was stunning. It’s also why I sharply criticized Dubas for letting the Guentzel trade situation fester.

Those days will linger. It was reminiscent of early 2015 when the rumors of Sidney Crosby’s unhappiness swirled, and coach Mike Johnston paid the price for a tumultuous team. Of course, you know what happened next (the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup championships).

The reasons for the Penguins’ nearly season-long problems can be debated. I had to exercise some restraint because there were a couple of on-ice issues that I couldn’t keep writing about lest I created scapegoats.

The power play, Graves, Erik Karlsson’s early-season fit and some defensive miscues, Reilly Smith’s absence from the scoresheet, Sullivan leaning on the players he should have been able to trust but whose inconsistency was the only consistency, Evgeni Malkin’s rough season, headline the cavalcade of issues.

Quite frankly, the Penguins’ Twitterverse did a good enough job of hammering away at singular reasons. This season was the most vociferous, intense, if not suffocating, time to be on social media. Fire Sullivan. Launch Graves into the sun. Even revisiting the Karlsson trade became daily battle cries rather than contextual opinions.

Yes, I started pushing back on the repetitive and challenging some of the more obstinate strains, but I’ll admit to you that I largely understood.

In a situation with so many factors and possible answers, everyone was trying to solve the puzzle.

Then everything changed.

The back-to-back wins over New York and New Jersey to begin April revived the team (Read more: The moment the Penguins KNEW They Were in It.)

The end-of-season turnaround amazingly left most with a hopeful outlook instead of the misery that plagued the team for months.

It wasn’t technically a winning streak because of the OT losses and regulation loss to the Boston Bruins, but the 8-1-3 run leading to the final game made a big impression. It took a long time, but during that run, we bore witness to the Penguins’ true colors.

Finally.

The spirit and mood in the room were drastically different. The hope, humor, joy, and eagerness were palpable.

“They had a choice,” Sullivan said. “It could easily have gone the other way.”

I will remember Alex Nedeljkovic wearing his Miles Garret jersey into the locker room the day the Browns beat the Steelers. I’ll also remember the genuine praise he received from coaches and teammates and him coming back into the locker room after getting pulled from the 6-4 loss to Boston.

That was a stand-up moment.

Eller and Karlsson were forthright through the toughest times. So was Marcus Pettersson. In the need for answers, those three were always available.

As I look back on the arduous journey, some moments will stick with me, and they may not be the ones that stick with—or haunt—you and the team.

In a few years, I won’t specifically remember all of the lost leads, the fuzzy goaltender interference calls that went against the Penguins at both ends, the missed call in Minnesota when the puck hit the netting leading to Minnesota’s game-winner, or Ryan Shea’s first NHL goal (though I’m sure he will).

I will remember Halifax and the city-wide celebration of Sidney Crosby. I had my first donair, enjoyed the locals’ interest in making sure I had an Alexander Keith’s beer, and fell in love with the little city. Propeller’s Golden Lager remains the best beer I’ve ever had.

It was the beginning of an extraordinary season for Crosby, which should garner plenty of Hart Trophy consideration. He should finish in the top five.

On that trip to Halifax, the kids gathered in Sidney Crosby’s home rink, chanting his name in that high-pitched tone for what seemed like an hour. It was a sight to enjoy. The guys played tag on the ice with the kids lucky enough to be part of the Penguins’ skills clinic (and the belly laughs as Evgeni Malkin playfully threw his gloves at the boys instead of tagging them).

A few days later, I rode the motorcycle back and forth to Buffalo, where I had my first beef on weck, saw the Scary Lucy statue in Jamestown, NY (an attempt at honoring hometown hero Lucille Ball that went horribly awry), and got caught in a wicked little rain storm that shifted course.

That seemed to be how the Penguins’ season went, as well. The storm continued to find them, from Anaheim center Mason MacTavish’s last-second game-winning shorthanded goal following a failed 5v3 on Oct. 30 to the lost four-goal lead in Colorado on March 24.

The storm even found me with my little viral moment with Crosby after the March 4 loss to the Edmonton Oilers.

I inartfully asked Crosby about the reality that the team was sliding as the trade deadline approached. Sid’s terse response was used on national sports shows for a few days. He and I discussed it a few days later, and we cleaned the slate.

I shouldn’t ever be part of the story, but it was a moment, for sure. Later that night, I wrecked my rental car outside Calgary into a snowbank at 3:30 a.m., but that’s another story.

The storm that had lasted since the final games of the previous season finally lifted when the team decided it was time. When Crosby dragged them back into the fight, Nedeljkovic added some scrappiness to the attitude. Michael Bunting added more. Jack St. Ivany upgraded the third pair with Ryan Shea, who limited the mistakes that plagued that lineup spot. P.O Joseph reached his best level beside Kris Letang and Pettersson was able to balance Karlsson. Malkin found as much as he had left at 37 years old, Drew O’Connor’s ascension continued, and everyone felt good about the final push.

Sure, issues, problems, and shortcomings still dot the roster. The age of the core three will be an even greater concern next year, as will the lack of middle six scoring and ability to hold leads. But the Penguins finally shed the stench that stuck to them from the end of the 2022-23 season.

They ended with optimism instead of despair.

And that’s where the 2024 offseason will begin.