Never saw that coming, again.
It happened against the Islanders.
And now it’s happened against the Canadiens.
Two inferior teams that had no business beating the Penguins in any series under any set of circumstances, even hockey in a pandemic.
But that’ll be the last time it happens with the Penguins’ championship-caliber core.
No longer can this group (nine two-time champions, including three players in possession of three Stanley Cup rings) be evaluated based on number of Cups won.
No more can these pedigreed Penguins be afforded the benefit of the doubt because of past accomplishments.
It was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?
But all that Penguins’ street cred now leads only to dead ends.
The series against the Canadiens was more of the same.
And the resumes of the championship-caliber core now includes the following in addition to multiple banners and parades:
-A franchise-record seven consecutive losses in playoff games.
-Three consecutive postseason series lost (a current run that’s one shy of the all-time franchise mark).
-A 1-9 record in their last 10 playoff games (and 2-11 in their last 13).
-And 28 goals scored in the Pens’ last 14 postseason efforts.
The previously unforeseen has become the new normal.
The mental toughness Mike Sullivan instilled in his team immediately upon his arrival is a memory.
The dedication to playing the right way, to being defensively responsible and to being able to turn defense into offense is long gone.
And the stars no longer shine.
Evgeni Malkin has one even-strength goal in his last three postseasons.
Kris Letang hasn’t scored a goal of any kind in the last two playoffs, and has lapsed defensively so often it’d be laughable were it not so sad.
And Sidney Crosby was outscored by Shea Weber and Paul Byron in the Montreal debacle.
Weber is a defenseman.
Jeff Petry, another Montreal blueliner, had as many goals (two) and as many points (three) as the perceived best player in the world, in part because the Penguins displayed a consistent disinterest in covering the points.
The 2-on-6 series-winning goal in Game 4, the one on which, among other things, Letang played Byron as if he were Jean Beliveau and Tristen Jarry decided to vacate the crease for no discernible reason, is the one that resonates.
There were plenty of other candidates, but that one play stands out as the snapshot of a baffling collapse.
This is way deeper than Jack Johnson, Patrick Marleau and Justin Schultz.
The Penguins are in need of a culture change, but they’re also in need of players capable of playing with the grit and sand postseasons series demand (even ones against vastly inferior teams).
The current Pens have too many who are either incapable of or indifferent to playing that way.
The organization’s response will be to stay the course and blame the unprecedented circumstances of the NHL’s return from pause, to make relatively minor alterations around the majority of that championship-caliber core, or to blow it up.
Blowing it up would mean starting over.
Staying the course except for a tweak or three_ a player or two here, an assistant coach there _ would betray a remaining faith that the head coach and the championship-caliber core can yet get it done together again, and that the general manager can rediscover the magic to add the complementary but critical pieces to the puzzle as necessary.
I’m not ready to proclaim that can’t happen.
It’s highly unlikely, but it isn’t inconceivable.
As for the next time the current championship-caliber core fails miserably, should it be given an opportunity to do so, the result should be met with neither surprise, shock nor befuddling disbelief.
For the Penguins’ championship-caliber core, not good enough is now the expectation moving forward.
Fool me once, fool me twice.
I won’t get fooled again.
Via Getty Images