PITTSBURGH (AP) Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and the Pittsburgh Penguins have been an NHL playoff fixture for the better part of two decades.
It's a run that's produced three Stanley Cups, a near miss at another and likely fast-tracked all three franchise icons to the Hall of Fame.
And now, it may finally be over.
Buddy Robinson and Andres Athanasiou scored 26 seconds apart in the third period and the lowly Chicago Blackhawks dealt the Penguins' playoff chances a significant blow in a 5-2 win on Tuesday night.
Pittsburgh began the night needing wins in its last two games over Chicago and Columbus to extend the longest active playoff streak in major North American professional sports to 17 years.
Instead, Petr Mrazek made 38 saves, Robinson scored just the fourth goal of his nomadic career to give Chicago a late lead and Pittsburgh finds itself on the outside of the playoffs looking in with just one game to go.
The Florida Panthers clinched one of the two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference following losses by Buffalo and Pittsburgh. The New York Islanders can eliminate the Penguins with a win or an overtime loss against Montreal on Wednesday.
It's not what Malkin and Letang had in mind when they signed lengthy extensions last summer to keep one of the most successful trios in modern NHL history together.
Six months of wildly erratic play crystallized over 60 minutes against a team that had won just once since St. Patrick's Day and whose idea of success over the next few months is winning the league's draft lottery.
“You knew it was going to come down to the last game or two and we got an opportunity tonight to control our own destiny and it didn’t work out,” Crosby said.
Malkin's 27th goal of the season 5:28 into the third period tied the game at 1 and seemed to swing momentum heavily toward the Penguins.
Instead, the Blackhawks, who are hoping to land the No. 1 pick in the draft and the chance to select Connor Bedard, responded by scoring four times in the last 10 minutes.
Robinson corralled a bouncing puck in the slot and knuckled it by Tristan Jarry to put Chicago up 2-1 with 9:38 remaining. Athanasiou found himself behind the Pittsburgh net moments later and flicked a shot at Jarry that somehow bounced off the goaltender and eventually made its way across the goal line.
Connor Murphy, Tyler Johnson and MacKenzie Entwistle also scored for Chicago.
“We knew (the Penguins) were fighting for a spot,” Athanasiou said. "It gives a lot of guys in this room an opportunity to come in and be a little bit of a heartbreaker. That worked out tonight for us.”
Danton Heinen added a late goal for Pittsburgh. Jarry stopped 22 shots for the Penguins, who are usually prepping for the playoffs in the final days of the regular season.
Only once during a streak that dates to 2007 have they come this close to missing the postseason. Pittsburgh needed a 2-0 win over Buffalo in 82nd and final game of the 2014-15 season to qualify.
That season ended with a quick first-round loss to the New York Rangers. By that December, then-head coach Mike Johnston was fired and replaced by Mike Sullivan. A pair of Stanley Cups soon followed, but the last half-decade has seen the Penguins enduring diminishing returns.
Pittsburgh hasn't won a playoff series since 2018. This year, they might not even get the chance. Save for a 14-2-1 stretch from early November to mid-December, the Penguins have been decidedly average.
Three wins in four games - including Crosby reaching the 1,500-point milestone in Detroit over the weekend - bolstered their confidence and their prospects.
Now, both may be gone.
Pittsburgh dominated play for long stretches against the Blackhawks only to have Mrazek - enduring the worst season of his 11-year career - get a pad, paddle or glove in the way.
Still, when Malkin tied the game early in the third period and unleashed a guttural roar, the Penguins appeared poised to take control.
Instead, Robinson scored for just the sixth time in a 61-game NHL career that dates to 2015 and includes four different teams. Athanasiou followed shortly thereafter and Pittsburgh was reeling.
“I think in the third (period) we got frustrated and kind of imploded, giving up chances and stuff,” Letang said. "It’s a tough one to swallow.”
Not long after the horn sounded, the Penguins participated in a “shirt off their backs” ceremony as part of Fan Appreciation Night. Usually, the event is a prelude to the playoffs.
Not in 2023, with their streak hanging by the thinnest of threads.
“It’s not over,” Malkin said. "We hope. But it’s hard to say anything right now.”
Blackhawks: Finish up their third straight losing season on Thursday against Philadephia.
Penguins: Can only hope their finale in Columbus on Thursday carries meaning in the standings.
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