What a run it was. Back-to-back Stanley Cup victories, nine straight playoff series wins, and a reign as Champions for 695 consecutive days — but as they say, all good things must come to an end.
When Jim Rutherford was hired as General Manager of the Penguins in the summer of 2014 and was tasked with repairing and rebuilding the team, there were a lot of question marks about how things would go. Here we sit four years later, with two Stanley Cup Champions banners hanging in the rafters of PPG Paints Arena and a team falling short of their goal of going for a third-consecutive try.
This post isn’t going to be about what went wrong or what went right for the Penguins in their Cup wins or this latest failure; it will be more about how these past springs and summers of 2016, 2017, and 2018 have meant to me personally and the people who have been a big part of them for me.
The 2015-16 Penguins
If you’ll allow me, let me take you back to a Wednesday afternoon in the summer of 2015. Jim Rutherford went for it.
Kessel to Pitt in multi player deal. Done— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) July 1, 2015
I then, in the heat of the moment, made a bet/prediction/declaration/whatever you want to call it.
if the Penguins make it to the Stanley Cup Final with Phil Kessel, I will buy tickets for myself and @Steve_Dangle to see it. on record.— mike darnay (@MikeDarnay) July 3, 2015
Going into the 2015-16 season, the Penguins didn’t exactly burst out of the gate, as they were sputtering along under Mike Johnston.
I made a weekend trip to Toronto late in October 2015 to see the Penguins take on the Toronto Maple Leafs, where Phil Kessel would make his first return back to the Air Canada Centre.
your booing of Phil Kessel sustains me, Toronto pic.twitter.com/KvvhbvLM6p— mike darnay (@MikeDarnay) October 31, 2015
The Penguins hit a wall, Mike Johnston got fired, Mike Sullivan got promoted/hired, and history started to be made.
Mojitos became part of my playoff game routine and may have taken years off my life (along with the games themselves).
very excited to make mojitos with this (hey Bruno) pic.twitter.com/4AEFp3NYGb— mike darnay (@MikeDarnay) May 19, 2016
Capitals fans handling this one well. I assume this is from the Capitals Wheel of Excuses pic.twitter.com/TnzAsuEskz— mike darnay (@MikeDarnay) May 11, 2016
Facing elimination down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Final, the Penguins pulled out the road win in Game 6 to send it back to Pittsburgh.
My friend Jason and I were dying in agony.
The Penguins went back home for Game 7 and got the win. I instantly had my “oh shit” moment when I realized what this meant for my bet.
It happened in a flash, but Steve came to Pittsburgh, flew in the morning of the game, flew back out the following morning.
I picked him up at the airport and showed him around the city on a beautiful last day of May.
He even wore my very snug Phil Kessel t-shirt jersey.
Sometimes losing a bet is amazing. pic.twitter.com/HQwH31oRY4— mike darnay (@MikeDarnay) May 30, 2016
It was the most random yet somehow surreal thing that I’ve ever been a part of. Two people who didn’t know one another from Adam (not the SDP co-host) aside from talking about hockey, now friends with a bond and connection that I’ll always remember.
The Penguins would go on to win the Stanley Cup, and I myself didn’t take it for granted for a single second. Despite having won it in 2009, I still felt like “we need to enjoy this, it might not happen again for quite a while, it’s such a hard championship to win.”
Little did we know, the Penguins were just getting started.
Like many teams that are attempting to defend a Championship title, there was a little bit of a hangover (for myself as well).
The Penguins didn’t storm out of the gate, but again after the turn of the calendar, the Penguins started to find their stride and they rolled into the playoffs as a hot team.
Again in the first round, Pittsburgh ran roughshod over their opponent — this time it was the Columbus Blue Jackets. Jake Guentzel became a star overnight and couldn’t stop scoring in the playoffs. He even made me look smart when I predicted he’d get a hat trick overtime in Game 3.
if we’re gonna go off the board from someone who hasn’t scored one for the Pens yet….— mike darnay (@MikeDarnay) April 17, 2017
i’ve got Jake Guentzel for the hat trick
After the Penguins dismantled the Blue Jackets, I decided then and there that this run looked it was going to be continuing, and I wanted to be a part of it as much I could. I was going to try and get to as many games as possible and be there for memories being made.
When the Penguins had a 3-2 series lead against the Capitals and were coming back home for Game 6, I thought “they’re not losing this one,” so my sister and I decided to go to the game.
I got very, very drunk when the Penguins were losing 5-0. One specific memory I have — entering the third period down 2-0, saying out loud, “if we get the next goal, we’re alright.” Sixteen seconds into the period, Nicklas Backstrom made it 3-0 and I chugged the entirety of my 16 oz. beer.
just make sure this goes on my tombstone, Penguins fam pic.twitter.com/UO7ioWukkm— mike darnay (@MikeDarnay) May 9, 2017
The Penguins would go on to win Game 7 on the road and punch their ticket back to the Eastern Conference Final.
At Game 5 of the Ottawa series, our managing overlord Hooks and I were in attendance for a shitshow of an afternoon that was an absolute laugher in favor of the Penguins. The highlight of the day: being tapped on the shoulder mid-stream while at the urinal during intermission to be asked if I was who I was and to be told that they enjoy Pensburgh. If you’re reading this, I still appreciate your comment, but perhaps consider saving the compliment until after one is doing finishing their business.
We all know what happened next — Chris Kunitz sent the Penguins back to the Final in the second overtime of Game 7.
goodnight moon— mike darnay (@MikeDarnay) May 26, 2017
fuck you Bobby Ryan
Back to the Stanley Cup Final, this time with a different opponent — the Nashville Predators. Again I felt like if I was able to be there, I needed to be. I asked around to see who might want to go and talked my friend Sean into buying tickets the day of.
We get to the game, and I get a strange message on my phone. It’s a DM from someone named Will, who asks if I’m at the game and where I’m sitting, and that he’d like to buy me a beer.
I didn’t realize until I was walking up to him that he was a Predators fan who had made the trip up to Pittsburgh for Game 1 and knew of me through the story of 2016 SCF Game 1 with Steve and wanted to say hi and have a drink. We ended up having a couple beers and talking about the playoffs and hockey for a good 25-30 minutes before puck drop, and we still talk all the time now. Great story and great memory to have made.
The coup de gras — leaving PPG Paints Arena very intoxicated and running into some guy outside the arena.
The Penguins held serve at home to win Game 2, had trouble on the road in Nashville, and came back home with a steamrolling in Game 5. They hit the road again to Nashville and did the damn thing. Back-to-back champions.
In the days following the wake of winning the Cup, one of the most random things came to be. Meeting up with my friend Devin for cold ones, lunch, talking about the Penguins, buying Stanley Cup merchandise...
cracked open a cold one with @MikeDarnay at emiliano’s and then he encouraged me to go get a tattoo. solid tuesday tbh ♀️— vegas knights fan since 1990 (@devinnnc) June 13, 2017
Not for me, but I was witness to it and it was fun as hell and the start of a fantastic year ahead as friends.
Attempting a Three-peat
Going into the 2017-18 season, the Penguins had a lot of questions to answer. Were they capable of winning the Stanley Cup three times in a row? They had holes in the roster. Jim Rutherford tried to fill those holes as the season went on, but the Penguins never hit that stride that they had hit in the end of the schedule leading into the playoffs like they did in 2016 and 2017.
So how do you handle that as a fan of a team who is playing on house money? You have as much fun as physically possible.
That means going to games Thanksgiving weekend with people who started out as strangers that you're now happy to call the dearest friends.
It means going to a game on a cold, random Tuesday night in February to see the Vegas Golden Knights and Marc-Andre Fleury’s emotional return to Pittsburgh.
the Penguins crowd giving Marc-Andre Fleury his welcome back for so long that the linesman had to hold off from dropping the puck several times is one of the more remarkable things I’ve seen at a live sporting event pic.twitter.com/pRsZOud0n3— mike darnay (@MikeDarnay) February 7, 2018
It means making new friends and cracking open cold ones.
It means inviting a friend for the weekend to go to a Penguins-Red Wings game.
The only thing that got painted red that afternoon was the goal light when the Penguins kept scoring.
Going to games with friends is great — taking kids to a game is even better. I lucked into being able to take this cool two-year old to his first game ever. He probably won’t remember it, but it was fantastic nonetheless.
It means meeting up with the people who keep the wheels running on this website on a day-to-day basis.
It means pre-gaming with mojitos and margaritas and going to a playoff game between the Penguins and Flyers, the game turning into a laugher, getting drunk and eating tater tots with delicious buffalo ranch, and realizing that you made a dear friend for life thanks to the Penguins.
Smart friends are those who when at a playoff game will tell you “we should get more beers in case the game goes to overtime.”
It means ending up barefoot on Fifth Avenue after a playoff game loss.
We’re all guilty of spending minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months debating about the nuances of hockey, the Penguins, the league, and every little bounce and bad miscue, but the past three playoff runs are the reasons why we do it.
winning is fun. it’s a lot of fun. but i would trade it for the relationships and memories made *because* of this team in a heartbeat. pic.twitter.com/yQHYIQf4R9— mike darnay (@MikeDarnay) May 8, 2018
We do it because we find a family in all of this. We find special people who we make special memories with. 25 years from now, when I’m creeping up on my 60’s, i’ll go to a Penguins game at PPG Paints Arena, and I’ll look up and see the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup Champions banners. I’ll see them and these memories will come back immediately — memories for a lifetime that I know I won’t forget.
Thank you, Penguins.