The Pittsburgh Penguins hold the longest active streak for consecutive playoff appearances in the NHL with 13 seasons under their belt. Though they failed to advance to the second round in the 2019 Postseason – as did other favored teams like the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Vegas Golden Knights – there have been plenty of other memorable Eastern Conference semifinals moments for the Penguins during their streak.
2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs – Defeating Jaromir Jagr
Coming off a 4-0 sweep of the Ottawa Senators in the first round, the Penguins fanbase was feeling pretty good about its team’s chance at making a real run for the Stanley Cup.
The players were taking things one game and one series at a time and were gearing up to face their second-round opponent, the New York Rangers, who had finished third in the former Atlantic Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference at the end of the regular season.
One player in particular from the Rangers squad was going to be under the microscope during the series, especially during the first two games at Mellon Arena: Jaromir Jagr.
In a 2008 interview with Lynn Zinser of the New York Times, Jagr claimed that returning to Pittsburgh eight years after leaving the city wouldn’t weigh on him emotionally. The crowds in the stands at the Igloo didn’t feel the same way and were more than enthusiastic to boo Jagr every time he touched the puck.
Jagr continued to add fuel to the fire, saying Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were not modern clones of himself and Mario Lemieux.
“All the respect for Crosby and Malkin, I don’t think they are Mario Lemieux … because the game has changed. The gap between the best players and the worst players on the team are [sic] very small compared to what it was before. The gap between Mario and the rest of the guys when I was in Pittsburgh was so huge that he was able to score 20 points in one playoff series. I don’t think those kids are able to do that,”(from ‘Penguins’ Fans Are Certain to Boo When Jagr Takes Flight,’ New York Times – 4/24/08).
Whether Crosby and Malkin were anything like Lemieux of the 90s was up for debate, but what wasn’t was the Penguins’ ability, as a team, to put away the first two games of the series on home ice, with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury earning his second career playoff shutout.
Jagr, understandably less than thrilled with the direction the series was taking, called out Crosby on the ice during the first period of Game 2. Following a holding penalty on Rangers’ defenseman Fedor Tyutin, Jagr got in Crosby’s face and reportedly told him to stop diving, in reference to a reputation Crosby earned in his first few years in the league for embellishing on certain calls.
Following the 2-0 loss, Jagr told John Dellapina of the New York Daily News that it was possible that Crosby and the Penguins got special treatment from the referees, something that the Rangers locker room claimed loudly for years to come, even after Jagr left the team.
“I don’t know if it is right or wrong [favoring star players] but that’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s most of the time been. I remember when Mario was here, we were getting some calls. I had more advantage seven years ago [as a member of the Penguins]. They give you more respect. But maybe that’s the way it should be,”(from ‘Fed-up Jaromir Jagr dives in and tells Sidney Crosby to stay on feet,’ from New York Daily News – 4/27/08).
Jagr’s barbs seemed to only spur on the Penguins. They took a 5-3 win in Game 3 at Madison Square Garden, where they were unable to grab a victory in four meetings in the historic building during the regular season.
Looking more like a 19-year-old two-time Stanley Cup champion and less like a 36-year-old veteran whose NHL career following the end of the postseason was uncertain, Jagr took matters into his own hands in Game 4, scoring two of the Rangers’ three goals in a 3-0 shutout for Henrik Lundqvist.
The Penguins were strong yet again in Game 5, back at Mellon Arena, taking a 2-0 lead in the second with goals from Malkin and Marian Hossa. The Rangers tied the game in the third, sending it to overtime where Hossa scored the game-winner at 7:10 into the extra frame, sending the Penguins to their first Eastern Conference Final since 2001.
The victory was extra sweet, seeing Jagr on the losing side of the handshake line after being a thorn in the Penguins’ side all series, and a sore spot in Penguins history for the previous eight years.
2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs – The First Meeting of Pens & Caps Round 2
Since Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin were drafted first overall in 2005 and 2004, respectively, the media looked for any way to market a rivalry between the two players who were supposed to be the biggest stars of the new era of the NHL.
Their first meeting in the Stanley Cup Playoffs was no exception.
The drama, however, began before the puck even hit the ice. After clinching the former Southeast Division and finishing second in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals had home-ice advantage at Verizon Center in the second round. Owner Ted Leonsis was determined to make sure the arena was packed with as many Washington fans as possible, so he comissioned a computer program to prevent fans with 412 and 724 (Western Pennsylvania) area codes from purchasing tickets online.
At the time, Leonsis told the Washington Post:
“I got a lot of emails from Pittsburgh saying I was mean-spirited and unfair. I don’t care. I’m going to keep doing it.”
The series was filled with plenty of on-ice drama as well. Crosby and Ovechkin both scored hat tricks in Game 2, with the stalemate broken by David Steckel to give Washington a 4-3 victory and a 2-0 series lead.
The Penguins split the series after four games thanks to an overtime marker from Kris Letang in Game 3, and a 5-3 win in Game 4 with five goals from five different players. The suspense continued to mount in Game 5 when defenseman Sergei Gonchar left the game after a controversial knee-on-knee hit with Ovechkin. Games 5 and 6 both went to overtime and left the series split 3-3, requiring a Game 7 tiebreaker in Washington.
All game sevens receive significant hype, but one that pitted Crosby against Ovechkin to punch a ticket to the Eastern Conference Final was on another level.
The Penguins dominated most of the game, with Crosby and Craig Adams scoring just eight seconds apart midway through the first to give Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead. Ovechkin was determined to cut that lead in half as he secured a breakaway and bared down on Fleury, who made a phenomenal glove save. That play seemingly shut down Washington’s chances for a comeback. The Penguins won the game 6-2, and advanced to the Conference Final, and eventually their third franchise Stanley Cup.
2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs – The Igloo’s Last Stand
In the Penguins’ 42-year history, they had never won a Stanley Cup on home ice at Mellon Arena. The time to make that dream come true was running out, as the brand new CONSOL Energy Center across the street was set to open at the beginning of the 2010-11 season. After a tough, overtime riddled quarterfinals series, the Penguins were hoping to have a smoother time against their second round opponents, the Montreal Canadiens.
If Game 1 at Mellon Arena was any indicator, the Penguins would have an easy series ahead. They took a 6-3 win and a 1-0 series lead off goals from six different players. Game 2, however, told a different story. Matt Cooke opened the scoring just four minutes into the first period, but the Canadiens netted three unanswered goals to win the game 3-1.
The teams continued to trade wins, with Pittsburgh taking Game 3 in Montreal and Game 5 at home, keeping the dream of the road to hoisting the Stanley Cup at home alive. The Canadiens, however, proved to be hungrier for wins, taking Game 6 in Montreal by a score of 4-3, and sealing the deal with a 5-2 win at Mellon Arena in Game 7.
As disappointing as it was to see their Stanley Cup run come to an end, it was even harder to send the old Igloo out with a Game 7 loss. The Penguins would just have to make up for it by making plenty of new memories in their new home rink.
2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs – Crosby & Neal’s Hat Tricks
CONSOL Energy Center seemed to be less of a good luck charm and more of a curse in its first few seasons, with players going down with serious long-term injuries in the regular season and the Penguins not being able to advance past the first round of the playoffs for two consecutive seasons.
Finally, following the abbreviated 2012-13 season, the Penguins got their first taste of Eastern Conference semifinals action in two years, and their opponent was a familiar playoff rival, the Senators.
While the series itself was nothing special – the Penguins were victorious in five games, winning Games 1, 4 and 5 by a large margin, their only loss coming in double overtime in Game 3 – a few specific players added accolades to their resume.
On May 17, 2013, during Game 2, Sidney Crosby scored his second playoff hat trick, making him the second player in team history, behind Mario Lemieux, to score multiple postseason hat tricks.
But Crosby wasn’t the only Penguin to light the lamp three times in one game during the series. James Neal netted his first career playoff hat trick on May 24, 2013, in Game 5, sweetening the series victory just a little more.
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs – Fleury Sets the Shutout Record
During the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Fleury shut out the New York Islanders 5-0 in the first game of the series to earn his sixth career playoff shutout, which tied him for the franchise record at the time.
Over a year later, the Penguins were getting set to face another New York team, their Metropolitan Division rivals, the Rangers, in the semifinals. The series as a whole did not go as planned – Pittsburgh blew a 3-1 series lead – but there was a bright spot for Fleury.
In Game 2, on May 4, 2014, the Penguins recorded a 3-0 win on goals from Letang, Malkin, and Jussi Jokinen, earning Fleury both his 50th career playoff win and his seventh career playoff shutout, putting him in sole possession of the franchise record. Before joining the Vegas Golden Knights, Fleury accumulated 10 playoff shutouts with the Penguins.
2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs – HBK! HBK!
For the first time since 2009, the Penguins were set to meet the Capitals in the second round. Coincidentally, that was the last season in which the Penguins had won the Stanley Cup, and facing the tough opponent again felt like a good omen.
Omens had nothing to do with the success of the Penguins’ third line, however, which consisted of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. Affectionately named the “HBK” line after the first initials of their last names, the hype over this high-producing line brought WWE wrestler Shawn Michaels, nicknamed “Heartbreak Kid” or HBK for short, to Pittsburgh during the Eastern Conference Final, and even inspired a Primanti Bros. HBK (ham, bacon, and kielbasa) sandwich.
The hype was warranted. The HBK line scored six of the 16 goals scored in the series and contributed assists on another two. In Game 6, the final game of the series, each member of the line scored at least one goal, with Kessel netting two pucks and Bonino scoring the overtime game and series winner.
The Penguins would ride the wave of the HBK line through two more series to their fourth franchise Stanley Cup Victory.
2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs – Personal Milestones
In a feeling of deja vu, the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins were again slotted to meet the Capitals in the second round of the 2017 playoffs. In addition to the HBK line from a year earlier, there were plenty of other talents on the squad to bowl over the Caps. With abundant talent also came a variety of milestones for both rookies and veterans.
On the scoring front, in Game 1 at Verizon Center, forward Scott Wilson scored his first career playoff assist on Bonino’s game-winning goal. Matt Cullen scored his 50th career playoff point in Game 2 with two points on the night, a goal to open the scoring and an assist on Jake Guentzel’s empty-net goal at the end of the game. Defenseman Justin Schultz scored his first playoff goal in a 3-2 overtime loss in Game 3, and Sidney Crosby scored his 150th career playoff point with an assist on a Guentzel goal in the 5-2 loss in Game 6.
Two players also played in milestone games this series. Defenseman Chad Ruhwedel played his first career playoff game in Game 6, and Hagelin played his 100th career playoff game in Game 4.
As a testament to the many accomplishments achieved in the series, the Penguins were also able to best the Caps in seven games with a 2-0 shutout, and advance to the Eastern Conference Final on the road to back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.
2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs – The End of an Era?
The Pens and Caps meeting in the second round had become somewhat of a routine by the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the teams meeting in the second round for the third time in three postseasons, and the fourth time in 12 postseasons.
Penguins fans were split on facing the Caps for a third consecutive semifinal round. Some thought it was a predictable stepping stone on a road to the first three-peat in the NHL since the New York Islanders accomplished the feat in 1983. Others felt that Pittsburgh couldn’t keep dodging the bullet of the talented Washington squad.
Those in the second camp ended up being correct. The Capitals finally defeated the Penguins in 4-2 games on the series to advance to the Eastern Conference Final and eventually their first franchise Stanley Cup.
Finally losing to the Caps in the Eastern Conference semifinals felt like the end of an era for the Penguins, and the fans in Pittsburgh, who could count death, taxes, and the Capitals going out by the end of Round 2 as givens in the universe.
But was it really the end? The first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs took out the Penguins, as well as all four division leaders, including the Calgary Flames, Nashville Predators, Lightning, and, yes, the Capitals. There’s always a chance the round-two rivalry could be renewed between these two clubs in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.