Penguins’ Playoff Streak Ending Won’t Be the End of the World

If alarms weren’t going off already for the Pittsburgh Penguins regarding their chances at earning a spot in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they are now. After Monday night’s 4-2 loss at home to the New York Islanders, the team with the league’s longest current playoff streak at 16 years dropped below the playoff line. And with their 7-2 drubbing at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers and the Detroit Red Wings’ victory over the New York Rangers last night, the Penguins find themselves in tenth place in the East, trailing the Islanders, the Red Wings, and the Florida Panthers. At this point, with the streak at risk, it may be worth asking whether the streak still matters.

The Case for Going for It

First, these are professional athletes, some of the best hockey players in the world, and no one becomes as decorated as Sidney Crosby without a fierce competitive drive. And if NHL players don’t tank in order to win the draft lottery, as Commissioner Gary Bettman recently quipped, they certainly aren’t going to miss out on the chance to win a Stanley Cup. They’re going to make every effort not only to make the playoffs and keep the streak alive but to win the Cup once they’re there. This is, after all, one of only two franchises with three Stanley Cups in the salary cap era.

Kris Letang #58, Sidney Crosby #87 and Evgeni Malkin #71
PHILADELPHIA, PA – FEBRUARY 23: Kris Letang #58, Sidney Crosby #87 and Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins pose for a photo prior to the 2019 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers at Lincoln Financial Field on February 23, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

There is a great deal of pride in playing for the Penguins and a strong sense of sentimentality playing for a team that has made the playoffs every season since 2007. This is the team of Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis, a team saved from oblivion by Mario Lemieux on more than one occasion. And playing on a team that has managed to keep its core together and consistently fight its way into the playoffs year after year with a cap looming overhead is impressive, an accomplishment that has earned bragging rights. And it only makes sense for them to push for the playoffs since general manager Ron Hextall re-signed Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin last summer to keep them with Crosby for at least one more run.

It May Be Time to Let It Go

But at what cost to keep the streak alive? The last team to have a playoff streak as long as the Penguins was the Detroit Red Wings, whose own streak famously reached 25 seasons. There are parallels between the two franchises and one-time rivals. The Wings, like the Penguins, were also cellar-dwellers who, after several years, put together a core that won multiple Stanley Cups and restored pride in the franchise.

Related: 3 Potential Trade Destinations for Penguins’ Tristan Jarry

However, their streak began long before the salary cap, though they managed to maneuver it and keep the streak alive for 11 years once it was in place. But they did it differently from Pittsburgh, gambling year after year by trading away first-round pick after first-round pick while signing many aging and high-priced free agents.

GM Ken Holland’s strategy worked, until it didn’t. Eventually, after Cups were won, age, injuries, and retirements became more abundant than goals scored and games won, and without any first-round picks to replenish their talent pool or without the ability to generate interest from other free agents, the Red Wings sank to the bottom of the league. Though they are making a push for the playoffs this year, it would be their first appearance in seven seasons. The last thing Hextall should want is to gamble away the Penguins’ future to keep the streak going the way Holland did.

The next challenge for the Penguins is actually winning a playoff round. At this point, in spite of the streak, the team has not won in the playoffs since they defeated the Philadelphia Flyers four games to two in the opening round of the 2018 playoffs, a year after the core won their second-straight and third Cup overall since 2009. They then lost in the second round to rivals and that season’s eventual champs, Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals.

Alex Ovechkin
Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin hoists the Stanley Cup (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Since then, they have lost to both New York teams in the first round, once to the Rangers and twice to the Islanders, including getting swept in four games in their 2019 matchup. Their other early playoff ouster was during the qualifying round of the COVID-19-shortened 2019-20 season, three games to one at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. For all their firepower, the Penguins were stymied by Carey Price’s sterling .947 SV% and 1.67 GAA. Clearly, the problems they’ve had putting the puck in the net have been an ongoing issue.

Even if they were to claw their way back into, presumably, the last wild card spot, they would draw the Boston Bruins in the first round. So far, that’s been a bad matchup for the Penguins, as the Bruins have taken both tilts, one in regulation and the other in overtime. But supposing they survived the first round, they also match up poorly against teams like the Carolina Hurricanes and the much-improved New Jersey Devils. One way or the other, a playoff appearance could get ugly for the Penguins.

Ultimately, all teams, no matter how great, eventually falter. It happened to the Red Wings and, more recently, the Chicago Blackhawks. It even happened to the Great One, a year after the Los Angeles Kings reached the Final. Ovechkin and Lemieux missed playoff series before eventually lifting a Cup, and even Mark Messier took a year off from the playoffs before returning to glory. Though there is no guarantee the Penguins will follow a similar trend, especially with their aging roster, missing this year’s playoffs would allow them to regroup, draft in a better first-round position, and maybe get out of salary cap hell. And though he has built his legacy on many golden moments, seeing his team’s playoff streak come to an end would hardly tarnish the greatness of Sidney Crosby.

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