Mueller: Penguins' playoff streak worthy of celebration

Pittsburgh Penguins' Kris Letang (58) is congratulated by Sidney Crosby (87) after scoring against the New York Islanders during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, April 14, 2022, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Pittsburgh Penguins' Kris Letang (58) is congratulated by Sidney Crosby (87) after scoring against the New York Islanders during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, April 14, 2022, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

I’ll forgive you if the big news of the last few days in Pittsburgh sports passed you by with minimal fanfare. When something is as predictable as it is significant, the former quality tends to take precedence, particularly in the sports world.

So it goes with the Penguins’ 16th-straight playoff appearance, an active record in American professional sports, and something I’m not sure matters all that much to fans of the team. Such is life when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and (technically) Kris Letang have been around for the entirety of the streak.

It should not need to be stated that making the playoffs for 16 straight years is an astonishing feat, but I’ll do it anyway, because it absolutely gets taken for granted to one degree or another in these parts. Every season since the team’s 2009 Stanley Cup run has started with fans talking about the team’s chances to win another title, with the notion that they would fail to make the playoffs completely off the table, never considered for even a second.

In a sense, that’s understandable. Most seasons started with the team more or less healthy, and under Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux’s ownership, the Penguins annually and admirably spent right to the cap in an effort to be competitive.

The road was anything but smooth in several of these seasons. Crosby endured his concussion issues in 2010-11 and the first chunk of 2011-12, Malkin ripped up his knee in 2010-11, and the team has frequently been decimated by injuries to role players.

Through it all, they’ve managed to stay afloat despite having a target on their back on account of Crosby’s primacy in the league. It’s a testament to how well-coached they’ve been, even though they’ve run through a handful of bench bosses during the streak, and to how much resolve Crosby and Malkin in particular have displayed when they’ve had to carry the team in the absence of the other.

Fifteen playoff runs have produced three championships, and the fact that the Penguins continue to chug along as a top competitor puts them above the Chicago Blackhawks when the discussion turns to which team has most dominated the salary-cap era.

That kind of success makes it easy to focus on how things end in the playoffs, and to zero in on early exits as particularly disappointing and unacceptable. When the core was in their mid-twenties, that made sense, but as they’ve progressed into their early and now their mid-thirties, the fact that the team continues to qualify is an achievement in and of itself.

Hockey is a young man’s game, just like every other sport. Careers peak in their mid-to-late-twenties, and then most players, even the best ones, decline steadily, sometimes sharply, into their thirties. Crosby has defied that, continuing to produce above a point per game even as he heads towards his 35th birthday.

Malkin has battled injuries more than Crosby of late, but if he’s healthy, he too can still be penciled in for at least a point per game. Not only have these two generational talents provided the team with a trump card in the playoffs time and again, but they’ve also maintained their skills and productivity, as long as their health has cooperated.

For most of this season, Letang has been playing some of his best hockey, and his commitment to physical fitness – despite his own frightening health battles – means he’s due for another big, well-deserved payday. His presence as an offensive, puck-moving force on the blue line is an x-factor that has helped this era be as successful as it has been.

Of course, if you’re reading this, you know how good all three men have been, and how instrumental they are to the Penguins’ greatness. That understanding and acknowledgement of their skills makes it tougher to accept the times when things have gone wrong in the postseason. I’ve fallen into that same “Cup or bust” trap in the past, so I understand the inclination to be critical.

Malkin and Letang are free agents after this season, and it’s far from guaranteed that one or both will be back next year. This might be the last ride for an exceptionally successful group. That’s all the more reason to celebrate the fact that this spring, just like it has every spring since 2007, playoff hockey will take center stage in western Pennsylvania.

Enjoy it while it lasts, which might not be much longer, because it’s certainly not as easy as the Penguins have made it look.

This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Mueller: Penguins' playoff streak worthy of celebration