They might not be the defending Stanley Cup champions, but there is a lot on the line for the Pittsburgh Penguins this season. Most notably, the longest streak of consecutive playoff appearances in North American sports, which spans over the last 16 years. And while this season has been nothing but ups and downs for the Penguins, one major question still remains as the postseason inches closer and closer. Is the championship window closed for Pittsburgh?
To put it into perspective, the Penguins have not missed the playoffs since the 2005-06 season which was also Sidney Crosby’s rookie season. Pittsburgh has qualified for the playoffs every single year since then and have been extremely successful as they have taken home three Stanley Cups in that time. But after their most recent Cup win in 2017, the Penguins’ postseason appearances have grown shorter and shorter. In 2017-18, the team lost in the second round to the Washington Capitals (who would go on to win it all) and have now lost in the first round for four straight years. Many thought this season would be when they win one last Cup with their current core, but so far, the chances look slim.
As of March 13, the Penguins are holding onto the first Wild Card spot in the East by a measly two points with several teams behind them in the hunt. It’s both a question if the Pens can even qualify for the postseason, let alone go far enough to make another run for the Stanley Cup. It all seems like a challenging task for a team that can’t seem to really keep their heads above water this season.
Courtsey of: Wes Crosby/NHL.com
Something that Pittsburgh does have in their favor is that their core remains intact. Both Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang scored long-term deals in the offseason to keep them on the team, but Crosby’s time is running out. The captain’s contract only runs through the 2024-25 season which is now only two seasons away. On an episode of Sportsnet’s 32 Thoughts podcast, Crosby talked about how he isn’t thinking about his career after his current contract is up: “I’ve played a lot of hockey. It's something that takes a lot of effort. You've gotta be invested in your body because a lot of things need to go right in order to play at an older age. So, yeah, I think that three years is my focus. From there, I'm just gonna see where I’m at.” If Crosby and the core wants one accolade to their names, the time to win is now.
Outside of the core, there isn’t much that stands out about this team. Goaltending has been shaky at best with Tristian Jarry suffering several injuries and no consistent performances happening in the crease. Jake Guentzel is having an uncharacteristically quiet season and many of the prospects or young players in Wilkes-Barre haven’t been getting the chances they deserve in the lineup. Fans were confused by both the lack of moves made at the trade deadline and the ones that the team did go through with. If there’s uncertainty about any team being able to win again, it belongs to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Playoff hockey may be another animal altogether and the Penguins could stun everyone by making it to the Stanley Cup Finals and winning the fabled trophy. But it might be time to have the conversation that the championship window has or is already slowly closing for this team.