The Penguins lasted longer than they were supposed

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In the salary-cap era of the NHL, no team gets to go out on their shield, really. The Datsyuk-and-Zetterberg era of the Wings fled to the Eastern Conference, took a couple first-round beatdowns, and then slipped into the playoff-less ooze that the organization only might just be emerging from. Ovechkin’s Capitals have been spiky enough this season, but are unlikely to get back to the playoffs either and haven’t been anywhere near a parade since they won in 2018. The Hawks haven’t won a playoff game in eight years and had to turn the whole thing over for various reasons.

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That the Penguins have outlasted their contemporaries is a testament to them, but it also appears over. The Pens embarked on a Western swing that they really needed to ace to keep their season alive. Instead, they were blanked in Seattle on Thursday, blew a two-goal lead to the white flag-waving Flames on Saturday night, and then got fustigated by the Oilers, 6-1, Sunday night. The Pens are nine points out of a playoff spot with 23 games to go, and unless they go 23-0 to finish the season. they’ll spend a second consecutive spring watching the playoffs from the 19th hole.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this when GM Kyle Dubas walked into his new office last summer, decided to cinch up his big boy pants again, and swing for it all by trading for Erik Karlsson. Karlsson has mostly been fine, but the power play problems that were teased in preseason never rectified themselves, and the Pens have spent the whole season unable to get some freebies with the extra man. Karlsson also wasn’t able to make up for the fact that Ryan Graves spends his time on the ice performing his own prostate exam with his stick, and is hardly a substitute for John Marino, whom they had to toss overboard before last season. No coincidence they’ve been a mess since.

The Penguins also can’t buy a win after 60 minutes, losing out on the gimmick points that their competitors can find. But the main problems are what they are for a star-laden team in this NHL, which is that the Penguins are top-heavy. The top six produces, but the bottom six is tumbleweed-infested. Jeff Carter is a corpse, Rickard Rakell can’t hit a bull in the ass with a snow shovel this season, and Reilly Smith hasn’t really produced the same magic he did in Vegas. All of that is enough to undo another brilliant season from Sidney Crosby, which is saying something.

The immediate path for the Pens is obvious. Jake Guentzel will be flogged at the deadline, even if he’s on the injured list at the moment. Crosby’s running buddy for their back-to-back champs is out the door. Losing Geuntzel’s contract, and finally burying Jeff Carter in the backyard so the smell stops bothering the neighbors, along with the boost in the salary cap, will give the Pens some wiggle room in the summer.

But they’ll also be entering the last season of Crosby’s contract, though there’s no way they could possibly let him walk. The bottom six needs too much construction, and Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Karlsson will only be a year older when October rolls around.

The Pens are also being undone by the fact that they stayed relevant, or around the playoffs, longer than most multi-Cup winning teams, upping the pressure to collect a next one as the last one faded over the horizon. Their last triumph was seven years ago. The Hawks were done three years after their last Cup. The Kings missed the playoffs after their second Cup and were never contenders again until recently. The Caps went into a shell almost immediately as well.

The Penguins lasted longer than all of them, which colors what they were. It gets harder to remember for fans and pundits alike, but 12 or 13 years of contention really isn’t normal.

The Pens drew out their death, which doesn’t really put their actual life into the proper light. This is how it goes for every great team, this is how the league wants it, even if the Pens were able to fight off the reaper longer than most.

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