The Pittsburgh Penguins clinched a berth in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs when they defeated the New York Islanders 6-3 on Thursday, extending their postseason appearance streak to 16 seasons.
The streak is the longest among teams in the major North American sports leagues, ahead of the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer (13 seasons). It began in 2006-07, when forward Sidney Crosby was in his second NHL season and forward Evgeni Malkin was a rookie.
Crosby and Malkin were unavailable to start the season after each had offseason surgery, leaving Pittsburgh's playoff future in question. Crosby missed 12 of the first 13 games, seven recovering from offseason wrist surgery and five while in NHL COVID-19 protocol; Malkin returned Jan. 11 after having knee surgery June 4.
Malkin had two goals and an assist in his first game back, and the Penguins defeated the Minnesota Wild 4-1 to improve to 21-9-5.
Contributions from forwards Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, as well as defenseman Kris Letang, helped the Penguins get through a first half of the season defined by injuries and illnesses to Crosby, Malkin and other high-profile players.
Goalie Tristan Jarry also has done his part with a .919 save percentage and NHL career-best 2.42 goals-against average in 58 games.
But Pittsburgh has cooled lately, going 4-6-2 since March 23. Secondary scoring has been the primary issue with 75 of 139 goals (53.9 percent) coming from Crosby (24), Guentzel (19), Malkin (17), or Rust (15) in 42 games since Malkin returned.
The Penguins looked to fix the issue ahead of the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline, acquiring forward Rickard Rakell in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks. Rakell has scored 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 13 games with the Penguins, mostly on a line with Malkin.
Here is a look at the Penguins' path to a playoff berth:
Most Valuable Player: Crosby continues to produce in his 17th NHL season. On Sunday, he became the 22nd player to reach 1,400 points when he had two goals and an assist, including a goal in overtime, in a 3-2 win against the Nashville Predators. It was his 1,100 NHL game. The 34-year-old is averaging 1.27 points per game, tied for his best in the past eight seasons (1.27, 2018-19).
Video: NYI@PIT: Crosby finds Guentzel on 2-on-1 rush
Unsung Hero: Rust has evolved from a utility forward during the Penguins' Stanley Cup runs in 2016 and 2017 to a mainstay on the first line with Crosby and Guentzel. He has taken another step forward this season, scoring an NHL career-high 58 points (24 goals, 34 assists) in 54 games despite scoring one goal in his first 11.
Memorable Moment: In the first period of a 5-4 overtime win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 15, Crosby scored his 500th NHL goal. He was the 46th player in NHL history to reach the mark, second with the Penguins (Mario Lemieux, 690), and joined Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin (776) as the only active players to reach that milestone. It was Crosby's 14th goal of the season, and he's scored 15 goals in 25 games since then.
Key Number: 27. Pittsburgh has allowed 27 power-play goals in 76 games after allowing 35 in 56 games last season. Its penalty kill is second in the NHL at 86.1 percent, behind the Carolina Hurricanes (88.6 percent). Last season the Penguins were 27th in the NHL at 77.4 percent.
Question Mark: Goaltending. Jarry has performed well the past two regular seasons after replacing Matt Murray as the primary starter but hasn't found similar success in limited playoff experience. He was 2-4 with a 3.18 goals-against average and .888 save percentage against the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference First Round in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the Penguins were eliminated in six games. His only other taste of the playoffs came in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, replacing Murray for Game 4 against the Montreal Canadiens. He made 20 saves in a 2-0 loss that eliminated Pittsburgh.
Reason Penguins Can Win It All: Despite failing to advance past an opening-round series the past three seasons, the Penguins still have a championship pedigree. The core of Crosby, Malkin and Letang have won three championships (2009, 2016, 2017). Rust and defenseman Brian Dumoulin were part of the 2016 and 2017 runs, and Guentzel was elevated to a top-line role in 2017. Forward Jeff Carter won the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014.