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Of reflection and perspective

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens had one goal this season.

That goal was to make history (again) and become the first NHL team to ever win three consecutive Stanley Cup championships in the salary cap era, and the first team to do so in nearly four decades.

Pittsburgh fell short of its goal following its Second Round elimination at the hands of the Washington Capitals. And regardless of how the previous two seasons ended - by hoisting the coveted Cup - the team was still upset by the setback.

"I'm still not over the disappointed stage," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "I had, have, so much belief in this group of players. When you fall short of your ultimate goal, it stings."

"We haven't had this feeling for a little bit," captain Sidney Crosby said. "It definitely stings. You understand just how difficult it is and what a fine line it is between winning and losing. Everybody did what they could. Unfortunately we couldn't get it done."

The Pens' failure is less a statement about the team and more a testament to the difficulty of winning multiple titles in consecutive seasons. There's a reason that the feat hadn't been accomplished since the 1980-83 New York Islanders.

"One thing I will say to you is that I have a lot of respect for this league and how good teams are and coaching staffs are," Sullivan said. "There are a lot of good teams and it's hard to win."

And with all due respect to the Islanders, that was a different era. Winning three championships in the salary cap era - where it's impossible to keep all of your best players due to free agency and parity has made every team competitive - is more difficult of a task than in the early 1980s.

In fact, winning back-to-back Stanley Cups is hard enough in the common era. Which is why the Pens' titles in 2016 and '17 marked the first time a team won back-to-back championships in the salary cap era (beginning in 2005).

"You do appreciate just how difficult it was," Crosby reflected. "It's easy to say that when you've won and it's fresh in your mind, but to look back and see the different turning points and how many times it could've gone either way, all those factors.

"To know that all those factors were still there the past two years and how easily things could've changed and how lucky we are, it definitely allows you to appreciate how difficult it was."

Lucky is the right mindset. Not that luck is the reason Pittsburgh won those championships. You don't win championships (let alone two) on luck alone. The Pens won on talent, skill, speed, grit, determination and work ethic - and maybe a little sprinkle of luck. 

It's not that this third edition lacked any of those qualities. Don't forget the Pens' opponent. Washington won three straight Metro Division titles and had the best regular-season record in the NHL in two of the last three seasons. The Caps also boast their own generational talent in Alex Ovechkin and a former NHL goaltender of the year in Braden Holtby. This was no ordinary adversary.

Also consider that most of the games in the Second Round against Washington were decided by one goal (until empty-netters). And the series clincher was scored in overtime. In Game 6. Seconds before that goal Tom Kuhnhackl hit a post. Pittsburgh was an inch away from forcing a Game 7.

But this time the Pens were on the wrong end of that inch. And that inch was the difference between Game 7 and elimination, between going the distance and the end of a possible dynasty.

One inch. That close.

Disappointment is understandable. But is perspective also necessary.

The Pens and their fans have enjoyed more success in the salary cap era than any other NHL franchise. Just consider some their accomplishments during that time.

  • Three Stanley Cup championships (only Chicago has matched)
  • Only team to win back-to-back titles
  • Won 97 playoff games, most in the NHL
  • Played in four Stanley Cup Finals, five Eastern Conference Finals
  • Clinched 12 straight playoff berths, longest active streak in the NHL and franchise record
  • Won 561 games since 2006-07, most in the NHL

On top of the team accomplishments, Pens fans have had the pleasure of watching two of the greatest players of this generation in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The Pens' "two-headed monster" has combined for four NHL scoring titles (Art Ross), three league MVPs (Hart), three playoff MVPs (Conn Smythe), two goal-scoring titles (Rocket Richard), four NHL players' MVP (Ted Lindsay/Pearson), one rookie of the year and one leadership award.

And a cast of talented characters surrounded Crosby and Malkin during their run of success: Kris Letang, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel, Matt Murray, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Sergei Gonchar, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury. Even Jarome Iginla and Marian Hossa stopped by for a cup of coffee.

Pens fans have been treated to all of these remarkable feats in a state-of-the-art facility at PPG Paints Arena - still on the cutting edge and ranking among the best venues in the NHL. The arena, which completed its eighth year of operation, is the foundation of the team's success and the reason they will remain in Pittsburgh in perpetuity.

It's hard to fathom that just two decades ago the Pens filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And a mere 10 years ago - before landing the deal for PPG Paints Arena - other cities were flirting with relocation.

Every game played in Pittsburgh since that time is a gift and blessing.

But of course, everyone in the know was aware that Mario Lemieux would never let the Penguins leave Pittsburgh. And the team's historical run in the last 20 years starts at the top with Lemieux and co-owner Ron Burkle, CEO/president David Morehouse and COO Travis Williams.

After all, the Pens success isn't just on the ice. On the business side the franchise is thriving in ways it never had before. The club sold out every single game for 11 consecutive years, a run that began on Feb. 14, 2007. To date, the club has an active streak of 531 straight sellouts (including playoffs). And counting.

Pittsburgh's local television ratings dwarf all United States-based clubs and the Pens have set the standard for fan engagement via technology (first pro U.S. sports team to develop a mobile app) and social media. Pittsburgh is one of only two NHL clubs with over 1 million followers on three different social platforms, while their Facebook interactions and video views doubled every team in the league this season. The Pens' 35 million Instagram views crushed the league average of 8.2 million.

Fans gather en masse outside of the arena to watch games on the giant screen, sometimes showing up as early as 6 a.m. to reserve a spot. So many fans piled into the streets on the cusp of Game 5 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final that the entire uptown area was shut down.

Those same fans littered the streets of downtown Pittsburgh and climbed buildings and parking garages during the championship parades. Pens fans are the lifeblood of the organization. And they've had plenty of reason to cheer.

Over the past 13 years no other team in the league can claim the accomplishments of the Pens franchise. And Pens fans are well aware of this fact.

The dejected Pens players gathered by their bench seconds after the Capitals scored the overtime goal in Game 6 to end Pittsburgh's season. As the players hung their heads, the sold out crowd of 18,621 rose to their feet and began chanting, "Let's go Pens!"

The players had provided a spoil of riches for the Pens faithful. Now it was the fans turn to show their appreciation to a group of men who had overcome so many odds in the last three years and provided so many memories.

After the Pens shook hands with the Capitals, the players gathered at center ice and saluted the fans to show their respect. The crowd responded in kind. Everyone was in this together, win or lose, good or bad, victory or defeat.

This was bigger than sports. This was family. As famous broadcaster Howard Cosell once said, "When you play Pittsburgh, you play the whole city."

Tweet from @penguins: To our fans - your support means everything and it has been incredible all season long.From all of the players and the entire Pittsburgh Penguins organization, thank you. pic.twitter.com/JzMmaA023s

Pittsburgh is the Penguins. And the Penguins are Pittsburgh. For two straight years, Pittsburgh truly was the City of Champions.

The dream of a three-peat may be over. But the Pens' historical run on the NHL is far from over. The majority of this team will be back for the 2018-19 season, particularly the big guns in Crosby and Malkin. No doubt general manager Jim Rutherford, who won the NHL's GM of the Year award in 2016, will make changes to improve the club.

Three in a row wasn't meant to be, but what about three in four years? Is that too much to ask? Is it impossible?

Not with this group. After the past few years, no one should doubt what these Penguins can achieve.

"I'm proud of this group and what they've been able to accomplish," Sullivan said. "It doesn't make it feel any better that we fell short this year. What it does do, for me anyway, is make me that much hungrier to want to do it again. I can't wait for Day 1 of training to get back at it with this group."

The Pens will now ride off into the sunset of summer. Over the course of the next few months they'll rest their broken bones, bruised ribs and pulled groins. They'll heal the wear and tear of 307 games, including 61 grueling games in the playoffs, in less than three calendar years.

They'll return in September fresh, healthy and hungry for another run. And Pens fans will be right there with them through it all.

Until then, they've earned some time to rest and relax. And, hopefully, they'll reflect on the last few years on everything from nearly missing the playoffs to reaching the mountaintop.

The loss to the Capitals definitely hurts. And it probably will for some time. But deep down this team has the heart of a champion. And no one can ever take that away from them. 

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