Pittsburgh Penguins Playing for Each Other as Much as Another Cup
The franchise’s decorated championship core looks poised to make another run, but likely won’t survive another early postseason collapse intact.
It’s the quest for another championship that’s driving Sidney Crosby and Mike Sullivan into the upcoming playoffs, both maintain, not the fear of what another postseason disaster might mean for the Penguins individually and collectively.
But both are just as certainly aware of the potential ramifications of another playoff failure.
“We put enough pressure on ourselves to win,” Sullivan insisted. “We’re trying to live up to our own expectations.
“I don’t think because circumstances have changed at the management level that it changes the expectations in the room.”
Added Crosby regarding the possibility that this might be the final chance he’ll have to win another Stanley Cup with longtime teammates Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang: “We don’t really talk about it. We’re excited and we’ve been fortunate enough to share a lot of playoff games together, important ones. I think you try to cherish every opportunity and make the most of it, regardless of what the situation is. You just have to take advantage of the opportunities when you get them and we have one. We’ll look to do something with it.”
The Penguins have put an additional three Cups in the organizational trophy case since the arrivals of Crosby in 2005, Malkin in 2006 and Letang in 2007.
Two of those have been collected on Sullivan’s watch from behind the bench.
But as they enter yet another post-season positioned to potentially go on another long and rewarding run, beginning with Game 1 of Round 1 on Sunday afternoon against the Islanders, there’s pressure first and foremost not to fall completely apart.
The Penguins have been doing that in the playoffs ever since Game 5 of their second-round series against the Capitals back in 2018.
And this time new General Manager Ron Hextall and new President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke will be watching.
The Pens were the NHL’s two-time defending champions back on May 5, 2018.
They had dusted Philadelphia in Round 1, stood tied with Washington at two games apiece through four games of Round 2 and carried a 3-2 lead into the third period of what figured to be a pivotal Game 5.
And then the bottom fell out.
The Caps exploded for four goals in the final 20 minutes, won the series in overtime of Game 6 and eventually captured the Cup.
It seemed inconsequential, albeit frustrating at the time, given how highly the Capitals were regarded.
It was perceived, and accurately so, as an example of what can happen in playoff hockey.
But after getting swept out of the playoffs the following season by the Islanders and then being beaten in four games by the lowly Canadiens in last season’s COVID-19-induced, best-of-five Qualifying Round, the Penguins find themselves mired in the worst futility streak in the franchise’s playoff history, one that’s produced a record of 1-9 in the Pens’ last 10 playoff games.
They’ll also have every right to expect things will turn out differently this time after having exceeded initial expectations in the regular season by battling through challenging COVID-19 protocols and a potentially devastating slew of injuries, and by acquiring what appears to be a game-changing piece, perhaps the missing piece to another championship puzzle in Jeff Carter.
The Pens are a team that has star power, balance and depth, and they appear to be oozing intangibles individually and collectively.
But what if all of that still isn’t enough?
Recall that it was Burke who had stated on a podcast back in November of 2020, when he was still in the media and prior to his eventually being hired by the Penguins, “I don’t think Pittsburgh is good enough to win. I think that window has closed, for me.”
He’s changed his tune since then, but it’ll be up to the Penguins to confirm the change of heart.
That makes the upcoming playoffs a succession of days of reckoning for the Pens.
It isn’t a Cup-or-Bust proposition, the Pens are promising but still not prohibitive favorites.
But this can’t be another One-And-Done, either, not for those hoping the Penguins’ championship core remains intact and recognizable and in a position to make subsequent runs at the Cup.
How much will be enough?
We’ll know it when we see it.
And more significantly, Hextall and Burke will know it when they see it.
If they don’t see enough, there will be a response.
And it won’t be the expectations in the room that change as much as it will be those tasked with living up to them.