Penguins’ 13 Seasons of Playoff Memories: Eastern Conference Final

The Pittsburgh Penguins hold the longest active streak for consecutive playoff appearances in the NHL with 13 seasons. Though they failed to advance to the Eastern Conference Final 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 Final moments for the Penguins during their streak.

2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Game 3 Milestones for Gonchar, Hossa, Laraque, & Sykora

The 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs was a whirlwind for the young Penguins team. After sweeping the Ottawa Senators 4-0 in the first round and sticking it to former team hero Jaromir Jagr by defeating the New York Rangers in the second round, their next battle was the toughest yet: facing their longtime rival the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Penguins didn’t miss a beat, taking the first two games at home to build a 2-0 series lead and set a new franchise record for most consecutive home playoff wins. The Game 2 victory was the team’s seventh consecutive home playoff win, surpassing the record of six set in 1992.

Related: 5 Penguins Who Went From Superheroes to Supervillains

Game 3 proved to be more of the same for the Penguins and was extra special for four veteran members of the team. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar and forward Marian Hossa both notched their 50th career playoff points – Gonchar with an assist and Hossa wtih a goal.

Sergei Gonchar, Pittsburgh Penguins
Sergei Gonchar, Pittsburgh Penguins (Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

Enforcer Georges Laraque and winger Petr Sykora also had reasons to smile after the Penguins’ 4-1 victory. Laraque laced up for his 50th career playoff game while Sykora suited up for his 100th career playoff game.

The Penguins team also made their own bit of history following Game 3 by becoming the first team since the 1983 Edmonton Oilers to start the playoffs with an 11-1 record, with their only loss coming in Game 4 of round two against the Rangers.

The Penguins finished off the Flyers in five games, with a decisive 6-0 victory at home in Game 5 to add an exclamation mark to the end of the series and send the team to its first Stanley Cup Final in 17 years.

2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Touching the Prince of Wales Trophy

After two hard-fought series against the Flyers and the Capitals – which went six and seven games, respectively – the Penguins were rewarded with an easy Eastern Conference Final. They swept the Hurricanes in four games, with two decisive 7-4 and 6-2 victories in Games 2 and 3, and an Evgeni Malkin hat trick in Game 2.

The real drama began following the handshake line at RBC Center. Penguins fans were wondering “would Sidney Crosby touch the Prince of Wales Trophy?”

Sidney Crosby
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar/File)

In 2008, Crosby took what is considered the traditional route of not touching the trophy awarded to the Wales and Eastern Conference playoff champions since the 1981-82 season. Though there is no clear beginning to the trophy-touching superstition, it is generally attributed to Flyers captain Eric Lindros, who refused to celebrate with or even acknowledge that his team had won the trophy.

Lindros told Sherry Ross of the New York Daily News: “We’ve made it three steps, and it’s four to win it all,” (from ‘Follow the leader three’s not all for Lindros,’ New York Daily News – 5/26/97).

The logic of staying focused on the grand prize makes sense but it didn’t do the Flyers any good in ‘97, as they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. The superstition also burned the Penguins in 2008 when they lost the Stanley Cup to the Red Wings in six games.

In 1991, Penguins captain Mario Lemieux elected not only to pick up the Prince of Wales Trophy but also take it for a victory lap around the ice at the Civic Arena before a rambunctious crowd that was ready to see the team make its first Stanley Cup Final appearance.

Related: Myth Behind the Prince of Wales Trophy

This year, Crosby decided to take a page out of Lemieux’s playbook by touching the trophy and posing for photos with alternate captains Malkin and Gonchar holding onto the trophy as well. Crosby told Shelly Anderson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“Last year, obviously, we didn’t have the result we wanted… We didn’t accomplish exactly what we want, [but] we still accomplished something here. It doesn’t mean that we think we’re finished by any means, but we can still enjoy it… We just wanted to change things up. We didn’t touch it last year. Might as well grab it and get a picture with it and move on and go after the one we really want,”

(from ‘Dress rehearsal for trophy display,’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – 5/27/09).

Spoiler alert: It worked.

2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Double Overtime Heartbreaker

Despite a successful but abbreviated 2012-13 season, the Penguins’ appearance in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final is forgettable. The Boston Bruins swept the Penguins, and two games were shutout losses. The series marked the first time the Penguins were swept in a playoff series since 1979, which also came at the hands of the Bruins.

Malkin, Crosby, and Jarome Iginla were blanked from the scoresheet through the series, and the Penguins scored only two combined goals in four games, from Brandon Sutter and Chris Kunitz.

Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL
Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Surprisingly, given those stats, Game 3 at TD Garden in Boston went to double overtime. The Bruins’ David Krejci opened the scoring just 1:42 into the game and Kunitz tied things up midway through the second. Boston’s Tuukka Rask had been on fire during the first two games of the series and Game 3 was no exception. Tomas Vokoun, who came in for relief of Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 2, matched Rask save-for-save through the third period and the first frame of overtime, but he let a Patrice Bergeron goal slip by him at 15:19 of the second overtime to end the game.

Had the Penguins won the double-overtime matchup the series could have taken a new direction. The loss, however, seemed to take the wind from Pittsburgh’s sails, had it been there in the first place, and they drifted quietly into the night with a Game 4 shutout loss to end the series and their season.

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Bryan Rust – Game 7 Hero

The 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs were stressful on Penguins fans. The net was in the hands of backup goalie, Matt Murray and for the first two games of the playoffs, the backup to the backup, Jeff Zatkoff. Tom Wilson did Tom Wilson things in round two, taking out Conor Sheary with a knee-on-knee hit, and three of the six games against the Capitals went to overtime.

To top it off, the Penguins were set to face the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, another tough opponent.

The series seemed evenly matched from the beginning. The Lightning took Game 1 in Pittsburgh with the Penguins rebounding in Games 2 and 3 to take the series lead. The Lightning snatched Game 4 to even things up heading back to Pittsburgh.

Marc-Andre Fleury played Game 5, his 100th career playoff game, ultimately losing in overtime. Murray returned to the net for Game 6, boasting a 5-2 victory, and just like that, the series was on the line with Game 7.

Pittsburgh Penguins Matt Murray
Goaltender Matt Murray was between the pipes for all but Game 5 of the Penguins/Lightning series in 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Game 7, of course, is where unlikely heroes shine. That was true for rookie Bryan Rust on the night of May 26, 2016, at CONSOL Energy Center. After a scoreless first period, Rust found the net just 1:55 into the second. The Lightning’s Jonathan Drouin evened things up at 9:36, but just 30 seconds later Rust lit the lamp again for what would be the game-winner in a 2-1 victory.

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Following the handshake line, Crosby again elected to pick up the Prince of Wales Trophy, a good omen for things to come.

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Game 7 Double Overtime Thriller

By the Eastern Conference Final in 2017, the Penguins were feeling pretty good about their chances of making a real run for back-to-back Stanley Cups. They had conquered the Columbus Blue Jackets with relative ease and vanquished the Capitals yet again. The Ottawa Senators were on tap for round three.

The Penguins were down in the series 2-1 heading into Game 4 at Canadian Tire Center in Ottawa. Murray started his first game of the playoffs with a 3-2 victory followed by an impressive 7-0 blanking of the Senators in Game 5 at PPG Paints Arena. The Penguins dropped Game 6 in Ottawa to set up the dreaded Game 7.

Matt Murray Penguins
Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Chris Kunitz opened the scoring of Game 7 midway through the second period, but Mark Stone tied it up 20 seconds later. Justin Schultz tilted the ice in the Penguins’ favor again in the third but Ryan Dzingle evened things up in less than three minutes. The score stayed 2-2 through the end of regulation.

Game 7s are stressful enough without overtime. Game 7 double overtime is just cruel. By that point, with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line, no one wants to make a mistake and no team wants to be the loser. Luckily, the Penguins came out victorious on another Kunitz goal five minutes into the second extra frame.

The dream of back-to-back Stanley Cup victories was still alive as Crosby skated over to accept the Prince of Wales Trophy for the fourth time in 10 years, picking it up, of course.

Though the Penguins will not have the chance to pick up the Prince of Wales Trophy in 2019, the hockey world will eagerly await the decision of either Bruins captain Zdeno Chara or Hurricanes captain Justin Williams. If the Hurricanes advance, look to Jordan Staal to give his captain some friendly advice. Staal saw firsthand what a difference touching the trophy made between 2008 and 2009 as a member of the Penguins.