Sam Ross Jr.

It is a trite but true bit of investment advice that no one rings a bell at the top of bull markets, meaning that often, just when results are great and future prospects seem bright, an unexpected negative turn could be near at hand.

This is true in the sporting world, too.

Perhaps it’s time to ask, did we miss the bells signaling the tops in a couple of Pittsburgh professional sports teams?

Begin with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. In 2018 they exited the playoffs in the second round and, last month, the Penguins got swept out in the first round by the New York Islanders.

The mighty Penguins have lost six consecutive playoff games over the past two postseasons.

This caused General Manager Jim Rutherford, as he poked through the ashes of this briefest of playoff runs, to finger complacency as one concern.

Maybe, opined Rutherford, the team has too many players content with past success.

The Islanders, said Rutherford, “were eager to win. They were determined. And the Penguins weren’t.”

This is a remarkable change of approach from Rutherford, who spent the past offseason deflecting blame from his team by criticizing Washington’s Tom Wilson.

According to Rutherford, Wilson ran from Penguins tough guy Jamie Oleksiak, all 6-7, 255 pounds of him, after a hit on Zach Aston-Reese in the 2018 postseason that resulted in Wilson’s suspension for the remainder of that series, won by the Washington Capitals.

When the Penguins and Capitals met in a December regular-season game, Wilson gave Rutherford the match he wanted and engaged Oleksiak. 

Wilson also knocked out Oleksiak, which Rutherford didn’t want.

Rutherford complained that Wilson had more or less jumped Oleksiak, ignoring that Oleksiak had dropped his gloves when Wilson had and that Oleksiak had thrown the first punch.

This produced a humorous exchange, as reported by rink-side analyst Pierre McGuire, with Sidney Crosby challenging the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin: 

“Why don’t you fight him (presumably Oleksiak)?”

Ovechkin shot back: “Why don’t you fight me?”

Rutherford took little more than a month after seeing Oleksiak felled to trade this would-be avenger back to the Dallas Stars.

Speculation is rampant that some big-name Penguins also could be ex-Penguins when the 2019-20 season opens.

Rutherford was right in recognizing that the Penguins as a group just don’t seem to be willing to do what it takes to win in the playoffs. 

They aren’t eager to grind in the offensive end, to play the physical game and to think defense first.

Rutherford insists that the window remains open for more Stanley Cup championships with this core group of stars. 

Perhaps that is so, or perhaps Rutherford will be found to be as overly optimistic on this topic as he was regarding Oleksiak’s fight prospects vs. Wilson.

It doesn’t help the Penguins’ image that the Islanders went from sweeping them to being swept by Carolina, only the fourth time such a reversal of form has happened in the history of the NHL playoffs.

The Pittsburgh Steelers also are in a state of flux after whiffing on the playoffs last season.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s contract extension aside, there are major questions on offense and the defense continues its desperate hunt for the big-play performers it so sorely lacks.

In retrospect, the bell could have rung a few years back. The Steelers are just 3-5 in their past eight postseason games.

Even though the Steelers have been considered championship caliber in recent seasons, they haven’t made a Super Bowl since the 2010 season, losing that one to Green Bay. 

The last Super Bowl win for the Steelers came following the 2008 season.

The pinnacle of Steelers domination came in the 1970s, when in a six-season stretch from 1974 through 1979 they won four Super Bowls.

The 1980 season began with a slogan “One for the thumb” as in winning a fifth Super Bowl ring. 

Instead, the bell had rung on that run of success and the Steelers would not make it back to the Super Bowl until the 1995 season and would not win that one-for-the-thumb Super Bowl until the 2005 season.

And then there are the long-suffering Pittsburgh Pirates.

Their 1979 World Series win, the second in that decade, is the most recent for the Pirates.

Even as they enjoyed a mini resurgence with three consecutive division titles from 1990-92 and fans celebrated a rebirth, it was understood within the organization that the end was nigh and the bell was ringing.

Former manager Jim Leyland tells a tale of a division-clinching night when team President Carl Barger sat alone contemplating how the team would be dismantled because there wasn’t enough money to keep it together.

Pickings have been slim since. This year’s Pirates surprised by briefly making it to the top of the NL Central standings last month before quickly slipping back to a more customary fourth place once the schedule began providing opposition with winning records.

The bell long ago rang for the Pirates. It also may have rung for these Penguins and Steelers.

 

Sam Ross Jr. is a freelance journalist who writes a weekly column for The Tribune-Democrat.