To say 2020 was a bizarre year is a bit of an understatement and I’m sure everyone is ready to turn the page and welcome 2021 with open arms. No one was safe from what the past year wrought, that includes the Pittsburgh Penguins who went from looking like Stanley Cup contenders, to hitting a low point, to not even being able to get on the ice, to getting on the ice before flaming out in spectacular fashion.
While the year did not go the way Penguins fans surely hoped when it began, there were still many bright spots to celebrate along with many moments that will make us cringe for years to come.
Best: Sidney Crosby doesn’t miss a beat
In early November, the Penguins announced that Sidney Crosby was going to miss 6 to 8 weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a sport hernia. That timeline was eventually extended to almost a full 10 weeks before Crosby returned to action in mid-January.
One may expect a player missing that much time to return with some rust to work off, but Sidney Crosby isn’t your average hockey player. In his first game back against the Minnesota Wild, Crosby racked up four points (1G, 3A) and looked every bit the part of player Penguins fans have become accustomed over the year. On top of that comeback game performance, Crosby went on to record at least a point in eight of his first ten games back.
Worst: Injuries continue to pile up
While getting Sidney Crosby back was no doubt important, he was simply one body returning to the lineup as others continued to fall. Jake Guentzel went down to a serious shoulder injury just two games before the new year. John Marino missed a chunk of games with a broken face and fellow defenseman Brian Dumoulin didn’t play a game in 2020 until March.
Injuries started early and occurred often in 2020 and felt neverending. Here’s to hoping 2021 brings greater health for the Penguins especially with a condensed schedule and divisional gauntlet awaiting them.
Best: Red hot January
A new year brought some good fortune on the ice for the Penguins and had fans thinking Stanley Cup (welp). There were an even dozen games on the Penguins January slate and they came out with an 8-3-1 record, including a clean Western sweep of the Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, and Arizona Coyotes from January 7th - 12th.
Worst: That California road trip
That January momentum carried over into February and the Penguins continued their strong play, culminating in a 5-1-1 start to the month that saw the Pens take over first place in the division after a resounding 5-1 win against Toronto on February 18th. Unfortunately, all of that momentum was brought to an abrupt halt in the latter part of the month. Already on a three game losing streak, the Penguins came undone on a California road trip, being swept by the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and San Jose Sharks in a stretch of three games in four days from February 26th - 29th against three of the worst teams in the league.
Best: Sunday afternoon comeback over Boston
One of those January victories came in the most thrilling fashion and gave the Penguins one of their signature victories of the season. Trailing the Boston Bruins 3-0 in the first period, the Penguins made a goaltender change and battled all the way back for a sweet, sweet win.
Not only did this game feature perhaps the Penguins best comeback of the season, it also had two absolutely ridiculous Sidney Crosby passes that only the man himself could possibly pull off. All around, one of the best games from last year.
Worst: Goaltending remained inconsistent
Even with the emergence of Tristan Jarry, the Penguins continued to receive inconsistent play in goal from both Jarry and crease partner Matt Murray. Jarry burst onto the scene in December, taking over for a struggling Murray and playing his way into the All-Star Game. Sadly, that level of play did not carry over into the new year and Jarry regressed to the point that Murray regained the starting gig.
As has been the story since winning his second Stanley Cup in 2017, Murray was unable to strong together good play for more than a few games before his issues resurfaced in an ugly fashion. In the end, what the Penguins saw from Jarry was enough to make him the future in goal and trade away Murray this offseason.
Best: Alex Letang steals the spotlight
Defenseman Kris Letang was chosen to represent the Penguins at the NHL All-Star Game for the sixth time in his career and made the trip to St. Louis with teammate Jarry. While the media was surely hoping to get some good quotes from the Penguins star defenseman, it was his son Alex who stole the show during the media availability.
Alex has been a fixture around the Penguins for a few years now, but his performance on a national stage at the All-Star Game propelled him to national prominence as he charmed and delighted NHL media from around the league.
Worst: Third pairing
We wrote about it many times right here on the site, but the pairing of Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz on the blue line absolutely killed the Penguins when on the ice. It was never a good pairing on paper and somehow looked even worse when they were deployed.
Best: Evgeni Malkin undresses the Capitals
If you’re listing the Penguins best goals from 2020 then this goal by Evgeni Malkin is right near the top.
Everything about the goal is Evgeni Malkin at his absolute best, something we saw a lot of last season. He completely turns Norris Trophy runner-up John Carlson inside out then uses a slick deke in a tight space to lift the puck past Braden Holtby. Nothing either player could really do in that situation, it was just one of the world’s best doing what he does.
Worst: COVID cometh, COVID taketh
It was unavoidable, but when the NHL decided to put the season on pause as the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep across the United States, no one had any idea just how much it was going to upend the hockey world.
When the games stopped in March, it was almost five months until the next one was played and so much had changed. While the product on the ice looked the same, everything surrounding the game was not. No fans forced the NHL to get creative and they made it work. Bubble hockey was an interesting experience, but let’s hope they never have to go that route again.
Best: Hockey back
Following months without hockey, summer arrived with a glimmer of hope. Negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA were progressing and it looked like hockey was going to return to finish what it started. Lo and behold, that’s exactly what we got with the announcement of a bubble tournament to determine the Stanley Cup champion.
Worst: Montreal Mess
If the six game losing streak in February was rock bottom the Penguins 2019-20 season, then what happened against Montreal is whatever is lower than that. The Penguins were the prohibitive favorite entering their qualifying series with the Montreal Canadiens but were summarily dismissed in just four games. Perhaps the worst part of it all was how uninspired and flat the Penguins looked throughout the series, especially in the Game 4 where they generated just 22 total shots, only three high danger scoring chances and 0 goals in their feeble elimination game.
Best: Bye, Jack
Listen, the signing was never good and always destined to end the way it did. From the moment Jim Rutherford brought in Jack Johnson, everyone knew it was never going to work out in the long run. Whether you used the eye test or just looked at the numbers, Johnson was not worth what he was paid and in no way was suited to play the Penguins style. It was always a bad fit and the move was rightly panned from the day it was announced.
Perhaps at times the fan base was a little too harsh on Johnson, but getting him off the roster and a chunk of his cap hit reduced helps a Penguins team still in “win now” mode.
As the Penguins prepare to embark on another season in 2021, there is a ton of uncertainty as to what to expect from the Penguins. The superstars aren’t getting any younger and two straight playoff flameouts leave fans wondering where expectations should sit. There was a lot of roster turnover this offseason and it remains to be seen just how well the new guys will mesh with the team.
Add onto all of that the gauntlet the Penguins will face in their temporary division, it’s hard to figure out exactly what to expect when the puck drops next month. It feels like the days of being a perennial Stanley Cup favorite may be fading faster than we care to admit.
Best (or maybe worst): The Retro jersey is unveiled
There are always strong opinions in both directions when a new jersey concept is released. That was no different when the Pens’ inclusion into the NHL’s newest “retro reverse” design that was announced in October. A nice 69% of Pensburgh voters did give at least a tacit thumbs up for the new, white PITTSBURGH diagonal jersey that the team will wear occasionally, but many felt the concept wasn’t as good as it could have been.
Best: Hockey is Back....Again!
We’ll end this on a good note. After months of not knowing what a 2020-21 NHL may look like or if there was going to be a season at all, the NHL and NHLPA came to an agreement to hold a 56-game season that will begin on January 13 and feature a division-only schedule and a revamped playoff format.
Knowing there is hockey on the horizon once this godforsaken years comes to a close offers some hope that 2021 will be better than what preceded it. Even if the games still look different than in normal times, simply having the game we love back to enjoy will suffice for now.