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When did the Penguins last start without their superstars?

Before 2021-22, it was 2003-04.

Drury and Kraft fight for puck
Chris Drury of the Buffalo Sabres fights for the puck against Milan Kraft as Brooks Orpik watches, on November 14, 2003, in Buffalo, New York.
Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Oct. 10, 2003.

That was the last time the Penguins began a season without either Evgeni Malkin (selected in the 2004 draft) or Sidney Crosby (2005 draft).

In his NHL debut, 18-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury made 46 saves— but he couldn’t save the Penguins, who were shut out by the visiting LA Kings in a packed Mellon Arena.

Fleury faced off against Los Angeles Kings goaltender Cristobal Huet in a start he probably wasn’t imagining when he donned his first Penguins sweater at the top of the 2003 draft. Five seconds into a first-minute Penguins power play, the Kings shattered the man-advantage set-up on a shorthanded breakaway, where Eric Belanger rung the puck off the cross-bar as Fleury’s glove was still rising to mark the first goal-against of his career just 38 seconds into the start.

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The Penguins spent most of the outing hemmed in their own zone, trying desperately to fend off Los Angeles scoring attempts; when they did force their way toward the Kings’ goal, they struggled to put pucks on net (Mario Lemieux, who would go on to skate in just 10 games that season, registered a single shot; the team totaled 11). Those interested can watch the entire two hours and forty minutes of thrilling game action here.

The Penguins went on to win three of the first ten outings of the 2003-04 regular season (three ties, four losses) on their way to finishing with the lowest points total in the NHL (the Flyers topped the Atlantic Division with 101; the Penguins bottomed out at 58).

Konstantin Koltsov in 2003-04. Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

Every season since then, the Penguins have listed either Crosby or Malkin on the roster of the season-opener. They have emerged victorious from nine of those 16 season-opening battles.

These Malkin- and Crosby-less Penguins have already earned five of six points in their first three contests of the campaign; the team is better-constructed than their 2003-04 counterpart, and players skating above their role are buoyed by the knowledge that their task is to temporarily hold down the fort until top players return.

Penguins fans will continue to hope that this moment arrives soon for Crosby, lest the return of Marc-Andre Fleury to Pittsburgh during the Blackhawks’ 5-2 loss on Oct. 15 heralds the squad’s return to the dark days of its 2003-04 counterpart.