Inside Scoop: Round 1 Playoff Memoriesby Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter
The Penguins made the playoffs for 16 consecutive seasons from 2007-22. It had been the longest active streak in all of the major North American professional sports leagues, and no NHL team was more dominant over that stretch. In addition to their three Stanley Cups, Pittsburgh piled up 768 regular-season wins and 103 playoff victories.
The team is celebrating that incredible run by sharing some of the top moments from each round over the years… starting with Round 1. In addition to the video below, team reporter Michelle Crechiolo - who has been with the Penguins since the 2010-11 campaign - shares some of her own personal favorite memories that she's experienced during her time with the team, in written form.
One of my go-to questions when interviewing players, especially during particularly good times and particularly bad times when emotions are running high, is asking them to describe those emotions. I've found that tends to elicit pretty solid responses, since it's a simple query with a simple directive that doesn't allow for much overthinking.
I posed it a few times to players in the final week of the season, and the replies were understandable. Sidney Crosby, missing the playoffs for the first time since his rookie year, used the word 'disappointed.' Kris Letang used the word 'awful.' And Evgeni Malkin didn't have words. "It's tough," he said.
We all experienced those emotions too, but once the initial shock and numbness began to wear off, an overwhelming feeling of gratitude set in as well. Those of us who have been around the team for most (if not all) of the ride started to reflect on not only our favorite on-ice moments, but our favorite off-ice moments as well… and it was awesome seeing all the amazing times you had watching and celebrating with friends and family and total strangers, all united by your love for this incredible franchise.
So, when we decided to celebrate this run, I was more excited than anything. Unfortunately, I never got to experience playoff hockey at Mellon Arena, since I started with the Penguins the year that PPG Paints Arena opened, so my scope is from 2011-on. And when I think back to all of different First Round matchups that have happened over that span, here are five main moments that come to mind.
MR. GAME 1
Heading into the First Round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the New York Rangers, the biggest storyline was Pittsburgh's starting netminder. Would it be Marc-Andre Fleury or Matt Murray, who had both been dealing with concussions? With neither of them healthy enough to play, it turned out to be Jeff Zatkoff - who somehow dug deep and came up with the game of his life despite extenuating circumstances. The entire legendary tale can be found here.
He set the tone in that series, for those playoffs… and when the Penguins celebrated their championship in the visitors' locker room at SAP Center in San Jose just under two months after that performance of a lifetime, no one was more exuberant than Zatkoff.
As the guys surrounded the trophy in the center of the room, with champagne and beer spraying everywhere and guys whooping and laughing, Zatkoff's deep voice boomed out over all of the noise. After coming up with the nickname 'Tishy' (which means 'beauty,' a term of endearment used by hockey players for beloved teammates) for himself, Zatkoff began chanting an even better one.
"MR. GAME 1! MR. GAME 1!" he yelled, pointing at himself enthusiastically. The boys lost it, and everyone joined in. I'll never forget that scene from the celebrations.
The goalie drama from those back-to-back championship runs was something else. After Matt Murray left warmups early ahead of Pittsburgh's opening-round Game 1 matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2017, we all waited with bated breath to see who would lead the Penguins onto the ice.
With the young netminder in no condition to play after tearing his hamstring, that meant the net belonged to Marc-Andre Fleury. The ovation Fleury received from the fans as he led his team onto the ice will forever be one of the best. We all looked at each other up in the press box, smiling and marveling, unable to even speak to each other because of how loud it was.
Read more about that night, and how the atmosphere in the building might have been even better after Flower followed his teammates off the ice following his 49-save performance in Pittsburgh's series-clinching Game 5 win. I'll have more on his heroics against Washington in the Round 2 edition.
Like his longtime linemate Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel is also very superstitious, he's just more under the radar about it. These days, he thinks I'm bad luck, so I don't talk to him on game days. But once upon a time, during Guentzel's incredible breakout performance during the 2017 playoffs, I used to be good luck.
Then just a 22-year-old rookie, Guentzel scored five goals in five games during that year's First Round matchup with Columbus, including a hat trick in Game 3 at Nationwide Arena. Here's the Inside Scoop from that night on our little routine, and his amazing performance.
We all knew the Penguins had a legitimate shot to repeat after keeping the previous year's championship squad mostly intact. And with a game breaking talent like Guentzel emerging from the system at the perfect time, those chances - and our excitement - shot even higher with the way he played in that opening-round series.
THAT'S TWO! THAAAT'S THREE!
One of my favorite Jake stories is from the 2017 Stadium Series, when Pittsburgh hosted Philadelphia at Heinz Field. As the Flyers headed to the locker room following the first period, one of them said, "Who is this 59 kid?!" They didn't have any answers when it came to Guentzel, who was unstoppable in the game, collecting two beautiful assists and bouncing back stronger than ever after absorbing a high hit.
Guentzel continued to get under their skin when the teams met in the First Round of the 2018 playoffs, with the hockey gods conspiring to make sure Jake would be wearing a mic while he exploded for four goals in Game 6 of that series.
Guentzel chirped Claude Giroux about jostling him as they lined up for a faceoff, with Guentzel telling him, "last time you did that, I scored." Giroux replied, "you just jinxed it!" Guentzel laughed… and quickly got his first of the night.
When the teams lined up for the ensuing center-ice faceoff, Guentzel cried, "I told you not to! I told you not to! You woke us up!"
From there, Guentzel kept track of his tallies, hollering, "that's two!" and then, "thaaat's three!" as he continued to find the back of the net. Welcome to Pittsburgh, Guentzelvania.
IT JUST TAKES ONE!
I didn't travel for the first-ever playoff series I worked for the Penguins, which was the 2011 first-round matchup with Tampa Bay. So, I was watching the broadcast from back here in Pittsburgh, and still marvel at the uncanny timing of color analyst Bob Errey's commentary for James Neal's double overtime winner.
Heading into the contest, Neal had been scoreless in the opening three games of the series after finding the back of the net just once during the regular season after being acquired from Dallas at the trade deadline, despite coming to the Penguins as a three-time 20-goal scorer.
But as Errey pointed out, "it'll just be one, and Neal and everyone else will forget about the last 21 games for James Neal, where he hasn't really got on the board too much. It just takes one… THERE IT IS!"
There it was, indeed, as Neal came up with a clutch goal in the absence of Pittsburgh's franchise centers, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both missing the series due to injury.
Now that I've shared my top memories, I would love to hear from the best fans in hockey about your most memorable Round 1 moments from the Penguins' playoff streak! Reply to the tweet below or tweet me separately at @PensInsideScoop and let me know!