The Penguins currently find themselves on the brink of a playoff spot. Their play this season has been mostly uninspiring, lacking in both goal production and goal prevention. However, it is important to remember that the Penguins are facing an unprecedented degree of difficulty in attempting to three-peat as Stanley Cup champions. Yes, it has been done before. Most recently, the New York Islanders captured four-straight Stanley Cups 1980-84. Even further back, the Montreal Canadiens won four-consecutive champions 1976-79. However, in both cases, it was simply a different era in the NHL. There were significantly less teams, the goaltending was not nearly as good as it is today, and the training and coaching tools that teams use today were not even fathomable back then.
Since the 1990-91 season, only seven franchises have even managed to get to the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back seasons; the 1991 and 1992 Penguins, and 1997 and 1998 Red Wings, the 1999 and 2000 Stars, the 2000 and 2001 Devils, the 2008 and 2009 Red Wings and Penguins, and the 2016 and 2017 Penguins. When the Penguins captured the 2017 championship, they became the first repeat champion in the salary cap era. With the institution of the salary cap beginning with the 2006-07 season, even getting to the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back seasons is an accomplishment in itself. Only the 2008 and 2009 Red Wings and Penguins and the 2016 and 2017 Penguins have managed to get to the Final in back-to-back seasons since the implementation of the salary cap. With teams having to let free agents walk or trade away high-priced players due to salary cap implications, the makeup of teams from season-to-season can change drastically.
The sheer number of games it takes to get back to the Stanley Cup Final is an additional factor that makes it so difficult to repeat as champion. Consider that the Penguins played 213 games in the past two seasons, not including preseason games or any games that the team ?s many star players participated in during the World Cup of Hockey during the summer of 2016.
Another thing that makes it so difficult to repeat, let alone three-peat, is the parity in today ?s NHL. In last season ?s Stanley Cup final, the Nashville Predators became the 16th different franchise to reach the Final since the 2005-06 lockout, which makes the Penguins ? four Stanley Cup Final appearances in that span all the more impressive.
Further, the sheer number of extraordinary accomplishments that had to take place in route to the Penguins repeating as champions are nothing short of astounding. First, head coach Mike Sullivan has won his first eight playoff series and became only the second coach in NHL history to win championships in his first two seasons. Second, then-rookie Jake Guentzel tied the all-time rookie record for points in an NHL Playoff season with 21. Third, goaltender Matt Murray, still considered a rookie by NHL rules last season, captured his second championship by recording back-to-back shutouts to close out the Cup — something that had not be accomplished since 1952.
Penguins fans have certainly been spoiled the past few seasons, but it is important to recall just how difficult the road to back-to-back championships was. Take into account that the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012, made it to the Conference Final in 2013, won the Stanley Cup again in 2014, then missed the playoffs completely in 2015. Also consider the plight of the Chicago Blackhawks. They won the Stanley Cup in 2013, lost in the Conference Final in 2014, won the Stanley Cup again in 2015, but then lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, including an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Predators last season.
The point is that reaching the third and fourth round of the playoffs every season eventually takes a toll on even the best of teams. While this season ?s team has left a lot to be desired thus far, it is important to remember the grind the core of the team has gone through in playing 213 games the past two seasons. It ?s not an excuse, it ?s a fact. Sure, this team, with its core players, coaching staff, and GM can never be counted out, but the precedent of Los Angeles and Chicago would suggest that an early playoff exit for the Penguins this season might be more likely than a third-consecutive championship.