Last round, the Penguins eliminated the Washington Capitals — the President's Trophy winner in each of the last two seasons — for the second straight year. Now, tied at three games a piece with the Ottawa Senators, the Penguins are one win away from appearing in the Stanley Cup Final for a second consecutive year.
Tomorrow night, the City of Pittsburgh will host an Eastern Conference Final Game 7 for the second time in as many years. Since the 2008 season, only four teams — the Penguins, Blackhawks, Kings, and Bruins — have won the Stanley Cup.
This list alone is plenty to be appreciative of, and yet, these team accomplishments fail to tell the whole story.
The driving force for all those achievements was a wealth of star power. Some teams win championships with great coaching, having team chemistry, or by having their goalie get hot at the right time. Dating back to the year I was born, the Penguins have had an embarrassment of riches when it came to NHL all-stars, Hall of Famers, and all-time greats of the game — these players have propelled them to three Stanley Cup championships.
Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin are the four pillars that the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise is built on. Three of the NHL's top-10 players of all time, and the 101st best player in league history, have all worn the Penguins jersey, and in it done some amazing things. Look at almost any list of franchise leaders and these names, in some order, are bound to appear. If you’ve ever been to PPG Paints Arena, I’m sure you’ve been just as in awe of the NHL Scoring Title and MVP banners as I have.
Since 1988, outside of a six-year drought — which occurred mostly during the pre-Crosby era — no more than three consecutive years have passed without a Penguin player winning the Art Ross. That “drought” followed a seven-year span of Lemieux and Jagr trading scoring titles.
Now having retired (twice) or moved on to play for another team (I honestly lost count) it's easy to reflect on and appreciate the legacies that Lemieux and Jagr left with the Penguins. Mario saved the team on more than one occasion — in more than one way — and 68 will one day hang next to 66 in the rafters at PPG Paints Arena, make no mistake about it.
If this image:
or this gesture:
doesn't evoke the same bodily reaction as when you cut an onion in a poorly ventilated kitchen, then I'll have quite an uphill battle getting the rest of my message across.
Lemieux and Jagr, whose gear hasn't been laid out by Dana Heinze for more than a decade, are easy to appreciate. Not just because of all they’ve done, but also because they're gone. Crosby and Malkin, the engine that's driven this team since joining forces in 2006, are here more than ever before.
At a time in their careers when they should be slowing down, Crosby and Malkin have remarkably gotten better, season by season, postseason by postseason. They currently sit second and first in playoff scoring, with 19 points and 24 points respectively.
Through only two rounds and six games, and without the team's best puck-moving defenseman, Crosby — who missed a game in the Capitals series due to a concussion — has tied his point output from last year's playoffs, while Malkin — who added another goal last night and was the most dominant player on the ice — already has six more points than all of last spring.
With nearly identical career playoff numbers — Crosby: 141 GP, 56 G, 100 A, 156 P; Malkin: 142 GP, 55 G, 98 A, 153 P — both will pass Lemieux in every statistical category when all is said and done. With one Conn Smythe a piece, a win tomorrow night could put Sid and Geno in contention to further cement their legacy and potentially move into a tie with Gretzky, Lemieux, Orr, and Parent as two-time winners of the award. Only Patrick Roy has won more with three.
So many emotions and feelings come with a Game 7 — nevermind a Conference Final Game 7 with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line. At some point between now and the end of tomorrow's Game 7, you'll feel anxious, excited, nervous, nauseous, elated, let down, and relieved. Before any of that sets in, or to give yourself a physical and mental break from the roller coaster ride of anticipation leading up to puck-drop, take some time to appreciate all we have been lucky enough to experience as Penguins fans.
Tomorrow, the Penguins have an opportunity to compete for a second straight Stanley Cup, led by two all-time greats at the pinnacle of their careers, with one game left to win, in Pittsburgh. As fans, we couldn't possibly ask for much more. And no matter what happens tomorrow, it’s safe to say we’ve been spoiled for the last 25 years.
Penguins 3 - Senators 1