PITTSBURGH — The longest active playoff streak in North American professional sports is alive and well. It’s the latest iteration of the group that has reached the postseason 16 straight years and counting that’s in trouble.
The Pittsburgh Penguins head into Friday’s regular-season finale in search of consistency, urgency and maybe a little swagger. A solid month of wildly uneven play will do that.
A surprising contender for the Metropolitan Division title at the All-Star break considering the rash of injuries to high-profile players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and brushes with COVID-19 that left head coach Mike Sullivan scrambling at times to put a lineup together, the Penguins are in a 6-9-2 funk.
The inspired performances that dotted the first half have eroded into a hodgepodge of meh. For every 11-goal outburst against the Detroit Red Wings, there has been a dismal setback like a 4-1 loss to going-nowhere Philadelphia or a bafflingly listless three periods against Edmonton and star Connor McDavid.
Instead of home-ice advantage when the Stanley Cup playoffs start next week, Pittsburgh heads into the final game of the season hoping to merely avoid falling into the second wild-card spot and a date with either Florida or Carolina.
Sullivan attempted to shake things up against the Oilers, including putting the top line of Crosby, All-Star Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust back together. Nothing worked. The top line didn’t muster a point and the Penguins were outskated and outworked for the vast majority of 60 minutes.
“Obviously, we’d like to feel better about our game,” Sullivan said afterward. “It’s hard to feel good about your game unless you get results. We’ve been sporadic lately.”
The Penguins have scored 56 goals and allowed 56 goals during the 17-game stretch that began with a 4-3 shootout loss to Buffalo on March 23. The team that has prided itself on Sullivan’s mantra of “playing the right way” hasn’t exactly tightened things up with All-Star goaltender Tristan Jarry out indefinitely with a foot injury.
Pittsburgh has been outshot in each of its five games since Jarry went down and has given up at least 40 shots in three of its last four contests. Not exactly encouraging considering what’s looming next week.
Defenseman Marcus Pettersson pointed to the finale as a chance to get some confidence, something that’s been in alarmingly short supply for a group led by the core of Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang, players who happen to have their names on the Stanley Cup three times.
“We’ve got to play towards (confidence),” Pettersson said. “Got to play hard, play for each other with some enthusiasm, because it’s not going to come by itself.”
Sullivan praised his team for its relentless resilience in the middle of the year, but there has been significant regression of late. Malkin, who missed the first three months of the season while recovering from offseason knee surgery, has been brilliant at times. He has 19 goals in 40 games, yet Pittsburgh’s record when he’s played this year is 21-14-5.
That’s not awful by any stretch. It’s also not good enough to keep pace with the leaders in a conference where all eight teams have reached the 100-point mark. Putting the Penguins’ sporadic play on Malkin’s broad shoulders is ill-advised. Yet there has been a trickle-down effect of sorts. Having two lines anchored by future Hall of Famers can lead to the kind of up-and-down, chance-for-chance play that puts an awful lot on your goaltender.
While Casey DeSmith has been more than fine — his .914 save percentage is within earshot of Jarry’s .919 — he’s also been under pretty heavy pressure at times.
The weekend offers a chance at a hard reset regardless of where the Penguins wind up in the standings. It also gives the team’s leaders an opportunity to help their teammates figure things out.
“I know this group is capable,” Sullivan said. “They’re an accomplished group. There’s a wealth of experience in that locker room. We need to draw on that experience now more than ever.”
In the big picture, Sullivan is right. Yet Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff series since 2018, when its bid for a three-peat ended in the second round against Washington.
The Penguins are 3-13 in their last 16 postseason games and for all of their consistency through the years, change could be coming if they make another quick exit.
Fenway Sports Group purchased the team last fall from Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle. Longtime CEO David Morehouse stepped down on Thursday. Malkin and Letang are set to be free agents this summer. While their legacy is intact no matter how the next few weeks ago, there’s a real chance this stand could be the team’s last one as currently constructed.
“You just try to enjoy it as much as you can,” Crosby said Thursday. “Because you know it’s not something that’s going to last forever.”