The Pittsburgh Penguins talk a lot about how resilient they are, how they’re able to overcome even extreme adversity.
They’re correct, on both counts. They’ve had to prove it a lot more times in 2021-22 than any team would care to.
But no challenge – and no setting – has been as daunting as the one they’ll face Sunday evening in Game 7 of their opening-round playoff series against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
They’ll be compelled to contend with an opponent fueled by the confidence born of back-to-back victories, one turbo-charged by a crowd which is rabid at its most tranquil and that has a goaltender who has been far more adept at stopping pucks at home than he was at PPG Paints Arena.
And the Penguins might be doing it with a goalie who hasn’t played in a month and a No. 1 center who conceivably will be functioning at less than 100 percent after some timely headhunting by the Rangers earlier in the series.
Which, incredible as it sounds, is a best-case scenario for them.
(Bear in mind that if they entered Round 1 with a reservoir of good fortune, it hasn’t been drained much through six games.)
Will all-star goalie Tristan Jarry, out since breaking a bone in his foot April 14, get the start over Louis Domingue, who lately looks as if he’s coming by his No. 3 spot on the depth chart honestly?
And if Jarry, who hasn’t had a meaningful practice since being injured, plays, can he realistically expect to deal effectively with the volatile offensive likes of Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad? Seems like an awfully big ask.
Same with counting on Sidney Crosby – assuming he’s cleared to participate – to instantly regain the form he had before New York defenseman Jacob Trouba decided to bury an elbow in his skull late in the second period of Game 5.
That was clearly the pivotal moment in this series. When Trouba took out Crosby, the Penguins had a 3-1 advantage in the series and a 2-0 lead in Game 5.
Now, New York is on the cusp of cusp of winning a series for the first time since 2017.
Quite a coincidence, huh?
Dealing with injuries is part of the challenge of winning a championship in this league; dealing with one inflicted on your best player with obvious malice aforethought shouldn’t be.
Having Crosby and Jarry – or even one of them – return would give their teammates a psychological boost. Getting Rickard Rakell, who was hurt in the first period of Game 1, would be a nice plus, too.
And history might give them a little cause for optimism, too: The Pittsburgh Penguins’ all-time record in Games 7 played on the road is 6-0.
Of course, while that stat is eye-catching, it will have no tangible impact Sunday.
Perhaps it is a reflection of the culture and unrelenting will to succeed that have existed in the franchise at times over the course of its existence, but it’s not as if it’s the by-product of a gene that’s passed from generation-to-generation of Penguins players.
If the Rangers end that streak – and by all logical metrics, they should – Trouba should catapult to the top of the list of early contenders for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Sure, he is just a second-pairing defenseman who has been held without a point in four of the first six games, but no one in the league has done more to influence the outcome of a series than Trouba.
If not for him going after Crosby, the Penguins would have spent the past few days resting and preparing to face Carolina or Boston in the second round.
Instead, they now face the very real possibility of a fifth consecutive series loss, a streak dating to the second round in 2018.
Make no mistake, New York is a quality team and should get better over the next few seasons unless that salary-cap ceiling scuttles it. Although the Rangers don’t look to be a true Cup contender yet, with a core than includes the likes of Adam Fox, Igor Shesterkin and Panarin, they could easily develop into one in the near future.
There’s no shame in losing a best-of-seven to a club of that caliber; the shame would be for the Penguins’ core of Evgeni Malkin, Chris Letang and Crosby to have this as the final act of its remarkable 16-year run.
This was a series they could have – and should have – won.
Of course, it still isn’t over, and history tells us that the Penguins just might find a way to make it happen.
Perhaps Marc-Andre Fleury’s Game 7 road heroics against Washington and Detroit in 2009 will be matched by Jarry, or some unlikely guy will score an overtime series-winner, the way Darius Kasparaitis did against Buffalo in 2001.
And, of course, Crosby might be back in the lineup and able to take his game immediately to the rarefied level he’d consistently reached in the first five games before Trouba decided it was time to separate him from his senses.
If that happens, Crosby could almost singlehandedly launch his team into the second round.
Any and all of that is possible, even if it’s not the way to wager.
Then again, the Penguins have shown numerous times since last fall that bad circumstances often bring out the best in them.
Logic says that their season should end Sunday night.
History – both distant and recent – suggests that the outcome is not settled just yet.