It had to end sometime, and it finally did on April 12, 2023. After a remarkable run of 16 consecutive postseason appearances, the Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated from the postseason after the New York Islanders by virtue of their 4-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens. The Penguins' streak was the longest of the four major North American men's sports leagues.
Pittsburgh controlled its playoff fate as recently as this past Saturday following a 5-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings. But a 5-2 loss to the lowly Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night put the Penguins back on the outside of the playoff picture. Now, when they face the Blue Jackets Thursday night in Columbus, it will mark the earliest ending to a Penguins season since 2005-06, Sidney Crosby's first season in the NHL.
Subpar goaltending and questionable moves by the front office were the two main contributors to the end of the Penguins' streak. The team's new ownership group, Fenway Sports Group, has come under criticism following the recent moves of general manager Ron Hextall. The ownership group has also, oddly, distanced itself from Mario Lemieux, a former Penguins co-owner and the greatest player in franchise history.
The Penguins' demise cannot be blamed on the team's aging yet still effective core of Crosby (35 years old), Evgeni Malkin (36) and Kris Letang (35). Crosby's 91 points this season represents his highest total since 2019. Malkin, who signed an extension with the club last offseason, has scored 83 points this season, his highest total since 2018. When both players take the ice in Columbus, they will have played in each of Pittsburgh's 82 games this season.
Letang, who like Malkin signed an extension last offseason, was diagnosed with a stroke (the second of his career) back in November. Despite his diagnosis and a personal tragedy, Letang was still the team's top defensemen while playing in 63 games.
The trio has a lasting impact on Pittsburgh and the NHL. The three, who have shared the longest partnership of any trio in NHL history, each played key roles on the Penguins' 2009, 2016 and 2017 championship teams. Letang is regarded as one of the best defensemen of his era. Malkin, a former Smythe and Hart Trophy winner, is destined for the Hall of Fame. Crosby, a two-time Hart and Smythe Hart Trophy recipient, is on the Mount Rushmore of hockey legends, along with Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr.
The start of the Penguin's historic playoff streak ended with a quick first-round playoff loss to the more seasoned Ottawa Senators. The following season, the Penguins surprised many by advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, where they fell to the immensely talented Detroit Red Wings in six games. Pittsburgh evened the score the following year by beating the Red Wings in Detroit in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Pittsburgh then failed to live up to expectations for the next half-dozen years. Crosby suffered career-threatening concussions during that span, and it appeared that the Penguins' once buddying dynasty would end with just one cup. But the Penguins, buoyed by new coach Mike Sullivan and a talented young supporting cast, brought life back into the franchise while ensuring a better legacy for Pittsburgh's "Big Three."
The 2016-17 Penguins became the first team since the 1997-98 Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons. In the process, Malkin and Crosby surpassed the Penguins' other legendary duo of Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr's tally of two Stanley Cup wins that were won in 1991-92. The Penguins' five Stanley Cup wins since 1991 are more than any other franchise over that span.
Another key member of the Penguins' most recent championship teams was goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who basically stood on his head while making saves during the final two games of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final. Fleury's departure in 2018 via the expansion draft was in many ways the beginning of the end for the Penguins, who have just one playoff series win to their credit since winning the franchise's fifth cup.
In a twist of irony, the Islanders ending the Penguins' playoff run is fitting. Three decades ago, the Islanders ended the Penguins' quest for a three-peat in the conference semi-finals. Now, 30 years later, the same franchise has mercifully ended one of the greatest runs in modern sports history.