Early in the 2015-16 season, the Crosby-Malkin era was considered a disappointment. Now, it’s the best in Penguins history.
When Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin came to Pittsburgh in 2005 and 2006, respectively, it marked a turnaround for an organization which had missed the playoffs every season since 2000-01, finishing last in the Atlantic Division each year.
In the 2006-07 campaign, the team made its return to the postseason — losing in the first round — before making consecutive Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, splitting the pair against the Detroit Red Wings.
Since then, the team has made the playoffs every season and has reached the summit of the league. Last year, the Penguins won their fourth championship over the San Jose Sharks before repeating Sunday.
Now, the Crosby-Malkin era has become the best in Penguins history. They have more than half of the team’s five Stanley Cup Championships, and the stars still have years to play before retirement. By the time it comes to an end, it might not only be the best in Pittsburgh history, but one of the best in all of the NHL.
The team’s run to this year’s Stanley Cup Championship was unlikely for several reasons. No team had repeated as champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98. The team’s starting goaltender, rookie Matt Murray, was injured to start the postseason and leading defenseman Kris Letang was out since early April after having neck surgery.
But even with the makeshift lineup, the Penguins found a way to survive and advance through the first two rounds of the playoffs thanks to former starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury starred in both series but was especially critical against the Washington Capitals, compiling a .921 save percentage over the seven games.
He continued his strong play into the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Ottawa Senators, but gave up four goals on nine shots in the first period of game three. Murray — recovered from his injury — replaced him and rejuvenated the team on its way to the Cup.
Now, the recent era of Penguins hockey is an overwhelming success, but for a while, it didn’t look like it would be.
Just last year, the team was struggling mightily. On December 20, the team was 15-14-3 and in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division. Head coach Mike Johnston was fired eight days earlier, and new coach Mike Sullivan lost his first four games by an average of 2.75 goals.
Some — including myself — thought the team was never going to win its second Stanley Cup with Crosby and Malkin. The 2009 championship seemed so far in the past, and the team hadn’t been back to the finals since.
Sure, there were some legitimate excuses as to why the team failed to make it back for so long. Crosby’s concussion problems were at the top of the list. The issues started in 2011, when the star received two blows from the Capitals’ David Steckel and the Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman.
The first — a blindside hit from Steckel in the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field — didn’t knock Crosby out, but Hedman’s did. Crosby missed the remaining 48 games, as well as the first 20 of the 2011-12 season. After making his return, he played only eight games before sitting out another 40.
These seasons had the potential to be some of Crosby’s best. Instead, they became the start of a trend of playoff heartbreak.
From 2010-2015, the Penguins only made it to the conference finals once, losing to the Boston Bruins in a convincing sweep in 2013. In three other seasons, the team was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, largely because of Fleury’s playoff inconsistencies. And while many other teams would be content with that level of success, it wasn’t good enough for the Penguins.
Not with Crosby, the best player in the league. Not with Malkin — arguably No. 2 — backing him up. Not with the veteran Fleury in net. This team was capable of so much more, and to walk away with only one championship would’ve been a huge waste of talent.
Luckily, Sullivan came in and changed the organization’s mindset. Under Johnston, the Penguins were extremely conservative. With many offensively-gifted players like Crosby, Malkin and former Toronto Maple Leaf Phil Kessel, this strategy failed to get the best results.
But, once Sullivan arrived, the strategy changed almost instantly. It showed late in the 2016 season and carried over to the playoffs, where the team outshot its opponents in 19 of 24 games.
This time around was quite different though, as the team was outshot the majority of the time, including four of six games in the finals. They found a way to get it done though, elevating the Crosby-Malkin era to the No. 1 spot in Penguins history.
Yes, this group is now even better than the 1990s teams with Mario Lemieux. The three championships of the Crosby-Malkin era are more than Lemieux’s two, and the team has also appeared in two more finals.
So, is Crosby better than Lemieux? That’s a different conversation, but the two definitely deserve to be compared. They are by far the two most skilled players in Penguins history, but with years left in his career, Crosby can add to his already impressive resume and pass up Le Magnifique.
Last season, I thought the Penguins were done winning Stanley Cups. Now, after back-to-back championships, who knows what they can do. The team is expected to lose Fleury — who waived his no-movement clause Monday — to the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL expansion draft, but with Murray and the core of the team returning, the future looks solid.
Could there be a three-peat next year? It’s unlikely, but it’ll be surprising if the group isn’t in the conversation next April, because this is the best the team has ever been.