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Penguins highlights, lowlights and moment of the year for 2018

Jonathan Bombulie
| Monday, December 31, 2018 2:00 p.m
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Philadelphia Flyers’ Michal Neuvirth fails to stop the shot of Pittsburgh Penguins’ Jake Guentzel, (59) left, who took a pass from Phil Kessel, rear, to score a goal during the third period in Game 6 of an NHL first-round hockey playoff series Sunday, April 22, 2018, in Philadelphia. The Penguins won 8-5. (AP Photo/Tom Mihalek)

For 2016 and ’17, it couldn’t have been easier to identify the highlight of the year for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It was when captain Sidney Crosby accepted the Stanley Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman to cap off the fourth and fifth championships in franchise history.

There were no championships to celebrate in 2018, of course, but picking the team’s greatest moment is almost as easy as it was the two years prior.

April 22. Having failed to finish off the hated Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 of a first-round playoff series, the Penguins were playing a Game 6 they didn’t want to play and were very much in danger of losing.

Trailing 4-2 in the middle of the second period, Jake Guentzel set up Patric Hornqvist for a goal. In the final minute before intermission, Guentzel jammed in the rebound of a shot off the post.

With the score tied 4-4 entering the third, Guentzel put on a show Penguins fans will remember for decades.

In the first minute, he finished a two-on-one with Phil Kessel to give his team the lead for good.

Later on, Kris Letang upended Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier on the half-wall, stole the puck and set up Guentzel for a one-time blast from the slot to complete the hat trick. Ten seconds later, Guentzel finished off a two-on-one with Hornqvist to become the third player in Penguins history to record more than three goals in a playoff game.

A comeback victory in a series-clinching game over the team’s most hated traditional rival?

Cup celebrations aside, pretty tough to beat that for a highlight of the year.

“It happened so fast,” Crosby recalled. “I remember in the third, they kept coming back, and every shot, he just kept putting it in. I couldn’t believe it. It was a really cool thing. You could tell he was pretty excited. It was fun to be a part of that.”

As the Penguins close out 2018 with a Monday night game at Minnesota, here are three other highlights and lowlights from the year:

Highlights

Jan. 5: Playing with youngsters Dominik Simon and Daniel Sprong on his line, Crosby records a goal and three assists to lead the Penguins to a 4-0 victory over the New York Islanders. They went 16-3-1 in their next 20 games.

Feb. 6: On an emotional night, Marc-Andre Fleury returned to PPG Paints Arena for the first time as a member of the Vegas Golden Knights. Ryan Reaves and Ian Cole scored to help the Penguins to a 5-4 win.

April 5: Phil Kessel snapped a shot past Sergei Bobrovsky 66 seconds into overtime, giving the Penguins a 5-4 comeback win over the Columbus Blue Jackets and essentially clinching second place in the division.

Lowlights

May 5: Everyone remembers Tom Kuhnhackl hitting a post and Evgeny Kuznetsov scoring the overtime winner to oust the Penguins in Game 6 of a second-round playoff series with Washington, but a Game 5 loss two days earlier was a crueler blow. With the score tied 2-2 late in the third, Braden Holtby stopped a Brian Dumoulin shot from the slot, and Jakub Vrana finished an odd-man rush going the other way to put the Penguins in a 3-2 hole.

Nov. 3: No loss better encapsulated the Penguins’ November swoon than a 5-0 pasting by the Toronto Maple Leafs at home. John Tavares had a goal and an assist, and the Penguins were never in the game.

Dec. 12: Even though it came in the middle of a pretty good stretch for the Penguins, a 6-3 loss that ended an eight-game losing streak by the last-place Chicago Blackhawks was a moment to forget.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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