The last team to win back-to-back titles was the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and ’98. When the Red Wings were going for three in a row, they lost in the second round of the playoffs.
The Penguins have thrived in a salary-cap era that seeks leaguewide parity. They have played 213 regular-season and playoff games in their past two championship seasons, the most by an N.H.L. team in a two-year span.
Entering Saturday’s game against Montreal, the Penguins are on a roll in this calendar year, going 25-10-3 since Jan. 1. With one week left in the regular season, Pittsburgh sits in second place in the Metropolitan Division.
Crosby, who has 28 goals and 57 assists, sees a benefit in peaking in the weeks leading up to the postseason.
“We weren’t even in the playoff picture earlier this season; it was more about that than any thoughts of a three-peat,” said Crosby, who missed the playoffs in only his rookie year. “It’s good that we’ve been fighting to get in, not just coasting.”
Crosby continues to excel, along with his fellow forwards Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist, all of whom are over 30. Malkin is 7 points short of his fourth 100-point season, but his first since 2011-12. Kessel and Hornqvist have reached the 25-goal mark. And the veteran defenseman Kris Letang is having a fine comeback season after missing last year’s Cup run because of a herniated disk that required neck surgery.
The Penguins continue to incorporate young talent. In the past two Cup-winning seasons, they benefited from the emergence of the versatile forwards Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel; defenseman Brian Dumoulin; and goalie Matt Murray, 23, a two-time champion.
But they did not settle for the roster they started the season with. Pittsburgh traded for center Riley Sheahan from Detroit in October and acquired Derick Brassard at the deadline in February to be the third-line center, a luxury few teams are able to accomplish.
“They achieved that and never messed with the integrity of their roster,” the NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire said. “That was smart. Plus they have young players who have improved, and that speaks to coaching and development and work habits. The Penguins have veteran presence, development presence and youthful presence.”
Jamie Oleksiak, a 6-foot-7 defenseman plucked from the Dallas Stars in January for a 2019 draft pick, has been a steadying force and is grateful to join a team with such a winning pedigree.
“It’s a really good core here, guys who want to win and push each other,” he said. “Every day they come to the rink trying to get better.”
Coach Mike Sullivan took over in December 2015 and has coaxed three second-half surges from the Penguins. He is driven by the endless quest for perfection.
“It’s a hard league and it’s hard to win,” he said. “You never really arrive. Everything you go through is an experience, a learning opportunity. Whether it’s a success or a failure, there’s always something you can take away that will help you be a better person or a better player or a better teammate. That’s the mind-set we have to have.”
Sullivan promoted the former Penguins Sergei Gonchar and forward Mark Recchi to assistant coaches this season, and continues to rely on Jacques Martin, previously head coach of four N.H.L. teams, to be a calm and sage presence.
“Jacques is invaluable; I could go forever and tell you what he means to me,” Sullivan said. “He’s a guy I can lean on in a lot of circumstances. I value his opinion and value his perspective. He’s got a great mind, a real student of the game. I know he makes me a much better head coach.”
For Crosby, there is always more to do while finding pockets of time to rest. The Penguins will have played almost 300 games over three seasons before a fresh playoff grind commences in about two weeks.
“We’ve worked hard to get into this position,” said Crosby, the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player the past two springs. “We’ve got an opportunity, but right now we have to go a game at a time. We’re just trying to hang on.”