Year In Review

The year 2018 in Pittsburgh sports: Our staff’s choices for top 25 stories


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Sunday at Heinz Field. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

There was no parade down the Boulevard of the Allies for the first time in a while, there were no major individual honors, and two of our city's three teams didn't even qualify for the playoffs.

And yet, 2018 came without its own starcrossed character.

The Pirates entered spring training with sub-zero expectations, only to have the public gradually warm up to a promising pitching staff. The Penguins entered the Stanley Cup playoffs with a shot at a third consecutive championship, only to have their most famous victim, the Capitals, vanquish that, then proceed to claim the Cup for themselves. And the Steelers ... wow, where to start?

The year was angry, giddy, irritable, irrational, way up, way down; big moves saw players come and go, heroic welcomes were ordered for a couple while the most discussed figure of all never bothered bother to show up.

Our staff again compiled a list of the top 25 stories we covered and, while we're sure no one will agree universally, we hope you have as much fun reading it as we had putting it together:

[caption id="attachment_751186" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Bethlehem Steel moves on after Ray Lee's penalty kick miss. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Oct. 20, 2018
in Pittsburgh

It was an event six seasons in the making, and, perhaps, it signaled the start of the next step for Pittsburgh's fourth pro team.

The Riverhounds' 20th year of existence was one of the club's best, and their 15-5-14 record in the first year under Bob Lilley was good enough for third place in the USL Eastern Conference and a home playoff game — their first since 2006 and the first at Highmark Stadium since the Hounds' first true home opened in 2013.

A stadium-record crowd of 5,189 braved bad weather and helped create an intense playoff atmosphere, and the game itself didn't disappoint. Ben Zemanski and Hugh Roberts gave the home team the lead in regulation and extra time, respectively, only to see the Bethlehem Steel score in extra time with a goal by Michee Ngalina and later send it to a shootout on a goal by James Chambers that tied the match 2-2.

In the end, it was a miss by Hounds defender Ray Lee that sent the visiting Steel through to the next round, 8-7 on penalties. But, as DK wrote afterward, the game felt more like a Pittsburgh sporting event than a Hounds game ever has before, and if the team is to continue to grow its following, the first playoff game at Highmark will be viewed as the moment of arrival. -- Matt Grubba

[caption id="attachment_751782" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Josh Bell is celebrated after his rainy walkoff. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

July 24, 2018
, in Cleveland

The Pirates went nearly two weeks without losing, running off an 11-game winning streak that was the franchise’s longest since 1996. It was also one short of the longest since 1965.

The streak started with a 2-0 win over the Nationals at PNC Park then continued with a five-game sweep of the Brewers at home from July 12-15. After having four days off for the All-Star break, the Pirates went on the road and swept a three-game series from the Reds from July 20-22 then beat the Indians in back-to-back games on July 23-24 before losing 4-0 at Cleveland on July 25.

The most dramatic win came July 15 when Josh Bell’s two-run double in a driving rainstorm with lightning in the background in the bottom of the 10th inning rallied the Pirates past the Brewers 7-6. That completed the Pirates’ first five-game sweep since 1996. -- John Perrotto

[caption id="attachment_738530" align="aligncenter" width="640"]martavis-bryant-steelers-raiders Martavis Bryant. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

April 24, 2018, in Pittsburgh

After denying they were interested in trading receiver Martavis Bryant, the Steelers were made an offer by the Raiders they couldn't refuse on the opening day of the draft. Oakland would give up its third-round pick, the 79th-overall selection, in return for the troubled receiver.

The Steelers bit, but created a need at receiver that they attempted to fill in the second round with James Washington. Then, in the third round, they sent the pick acquired from Oakland, along with a seventh-round selection to Seattle to move up three spots to acquire quarterback Mason Rudolph.

Rudolph, whom the Steelers said they had graded in the same neighborhood as the top quarterbacks in the draft, is viewed as a potential replacement for Ben Roethlisberger, something that didn't sit all too well with Roethlisberger in the days after the draft.

Bryant, meanwhile, appeared in just eight games for the Raiders before drawing another suspension from the NFL -- his third -- for violation of the league's substance abuse policy. -- Lolley

[caption id="attachment_751774" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Daniel Sprong in a Ducks sweater. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Dec. 3, 2018 in Pittsburgh

Daniel Sprong slumped in his locker stall that morning, the frustration on his face, and in his voice, was evident for all to see. He was among the last players off the ice and assuredly to be a healthy scratch for the fourth straight game the following night against the Avalanche. After putting up a strong showing Nov. 24 against the division-leading Blue Jackets, the 21-year-old felt he hadn't been given a chance to build off that performance.

A few hours later, as he was shopping, the call that he'd been anticipating finally came. He'd been traded to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for defenseman Marcus Pettersson.

It was a stunning reversal for a prospect who had been considered the organization's top prospect and a potential 40-goal scorer. In July, Jim Rutherford stated that Sprong would finally be a regular in the lineup. However, that never happened. He was scratched five times in the first 21 games. After recording just four assists in 16 games, the Penguins parted ways with Sprong.

The trade has since worked out well for both Sprong, Pettersson and their respective new clubs. In Anaheim, Sprong has settled into a top-six role and has been able to utilize his devastating shot. Pettersson has played a central role in helping the Penguins turnaround their season with his solid defensive play. -- Bradford

Dec. 1, 2018 in Charlotte, N.C.

Some eyes rolled in Charlotte back in July when Pat Narduzzi said, "We want to try to make everybody else look bad and make sure Pitt is at the top of the Coastal." His Panthers were picked to finish fifth in the seven-team division, but the coach still said he would see everyone back in Charlotte in December.

That might have been bravado, but there was also some substance to it.

Pitt bounced back from a rocky start that included an inexplicable September loss at cellar-dwelling North Carolina to win five consecutive ACC games, ending with a 6-2 record and the outright title in the Coastal Division. Behind a power running game led by 1,000-yard rushers Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall and a defense that improved by leaps and bounds in October and November, the Panthers locked up the title with a win at Wake Forest on Nov. 17 and briefly moved into the College Football Playoff Top 25.

Though the Panthers were beaten handily by No. 2 Clemson, 42-10, in the ACC Championship game, the team's first division title since joining the conference represented a step forward off a 5-7 season in 2017 and earned the Panthers a spot in the Sun Bowl. -- Grubba

Sept. 28, 2018, in Cincinnati

Jung Ho Kang’s pinch-hit single in the Pirates’ 8-4 victory over the Reds was rather insignificant in and of itself. However, it marked his first major league action since Oct. 2, 2016.

Kang missed the 2017 season because of work visa issues related to three DUI arrests in his native South Korea. He was finally cleared to come to the United States in late April but injured his left wrist in July while playing for Triple-A Indianapolis and underwent surgery.

The Pirates added Kang to their roster for the last series of the season and he was 2-for-6 in three games. The Pirates then re-signed the 31-year-old to a one-year, $3-million contract as a free agent Nov. 8. -- Perrotto

March 28, 2018
in Pittsburgh

The 2017-18 season was a lost cause for Pitt basketball. The hire of Kevin Stallings by former athletic director Scott Barnes proved to be a major error, and after the Panthers finished an 8-24 season by going winless in 19 ACC games, it was clear change was needed.

Heather Lyke, less than a year into her tenure as athletic director, was quick to pull the trigger after that embarrassing season, firing Stallings and taking the financial hit of buying out his contract, a buyout believed to be in the neighborhood of $9 million.

After a search that first saw Lyke court Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley before Hurley instead opted to take the job at UConn, the Panthers surprised many by landing Duke assistant and former Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel. Capel, who many felt was in position to be Duke's next coach when his mentor, Mike Krzyzewski, retires, jumped at the opportunity to lead an ACC program and build something essentially from scratch, taking the Pitt job after previously passing on offers from other power conference schools.

The hire was roundly praised before his team ever played a game, but the on-court product has visibly improved. The Panthers, playing with an undersized roster — both in height and number of scholarship players — ran out to a 10-3 record to close the calendar year and enter ACC play in 2019. — Grubba

[caption id="attachment_747289" align="aligncenter" width="640"] The Chargers' Michael Badgley has a kick blocked. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Dec. 2, 2018, in Pittsburgh

In their 80-plus seasons of existence, the Steelers had never before blown a lead of 16 or more points at home -- until Dec. 2, 2018.

That's when the Steelers took a 23-7 lead at halftime only to see the Chargers score 26 points in the final 16:43 to storm back and win.

Chargers placekicker Michael Badgley missed his first attempt at a game-winning field goal with less than 10 seconds remaining, but Joe Haden was penalized for being offside.

The Steelers were even more upset, however, on the second attempt, from 34 yards, that was blocked by Artie Burns. Burns was penalized for being offside, as well, though replays showed Burns appeared to stay onside, even though Chargers' long snapper, Mike Windt, double clutched on the snap.

Even a Browns player got into the act, pointing out Windt does this all the time:

Badgley made the third attempt, this one from 29 yards, to lift the Chargers to victory. It was the first of three consecutive losses for the Steelers and the largest blown lead at home in team history.

[caption id="attachment_657777" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Jack Johnson signs his deal. - EVAN SCHALL / PENGUINS[/caption]

July 1, 2018, in Pittsburgh

From the moment the Penguins signed Jack Johnson on July 1, the first day of free agency, it seemed to cause controversy both here and in Columbus, where the veteran defenseman had played the previous seven seasons with the Blue Jackets.

In Pittsburgh, where a fanbase was still smarting after the Penguins' second-round playoff exit, many were wondering why Rutherford would sign a 31-year-old with less-than-stellar advanced metrics to a $16.25 million contract that would tie him to the organization through 2022-23.

In central Ohio, Johnson's comments that he wanted to come to a team with a "winning culture" did not sit well with Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella or with GM Jarmo Kekalainen, who took exception to Rutherford's assertion that Johnson's benching during last spring's playoffs was something other that performance-related.

When the dust finally settled and the season began, Johnson has proven himself to be a steady defender with some offensive upside. Though he's never quite lived up to being the third overall pick in the 2005 draft, two spots below Sidney Crosby, Johnson has been a good fit with the Penguins. -- Bradford

Dec. 16, 2018, in Pittsburgh

The Steelers entered the 2018 season having lost their past five meetings with the New England Patriots. They just hadn't been able to solve Tom Brady and company.

But on Dec. 16 at Heinz Field, the Steelers not only found a way to keep Brady in check, they made him look like the 41-year-old quarterback he is.

The Steelers sacked Brady just one time, but they pressured him throughout the game and even successfully defended three-straight throws into the end zone to turn Patriots over on downs.

That ended a three-game losing streak for the Steelers and gave them their first win over Brady since 2011.

Dec. 13, 2018
, in Atlanta

Those close to him knew Bill Fralic was in a battle with cancer, but that didn't make the death of a man with a tough-as-nails reputation any less shocking.

Fralic was a dominant high school player at Penn Hills, a three-time first-team All-American lineman at Pitt and a two-time All-Pro with the Atlanta Falcons. While achieving so much on the field, he also briefly dabbled in professional wrestling, testified before the U.S. Senate about steroid use in football and opened a successful commercial trucking insurance company in Georgia.

After his playing days concluded, he moved to the broadcast booth, first with the Falcons and later back at Pitt. He partnered for seven years in the Panthers' booth with Bill Hillgrove, who told DK Pittsburgh Sports of his friend and former colleague: "He never lost his sense of humor, and he probably fought that thing as well as anyone could do it.”

A member of the College Football Hall of Fame and part of Pitt's inaugural Hall of Fame class, Fralic never forgot his roots to the very end, footing the bill for Penn Hills' victorious trip to Hershey for the PIAA football championships just weeks before his death at age 56. — Grubba

[caption id="attachment_751919" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Tom Wilson launches through Zach Aston-Reese. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

April 29, 2018 in Washington and May 1, 2018 in Pittsburgh

After facing the Capitals each of the previous two springs, the Penguins were well aware of Tom Wilson and his penchant for questionable play. Even before last season's second-round matchup, Wilson had been suspended twice for a combined six games for illegal hits.

Still, despite their bitter rivalry with Washington, even the Penguins were taken aback by Wilson's blatant hits to the head last April.

In Game 2 at Washington, Wilson knocked Brian Dumoulin out of the game with a concussion. In not handing down a suspension, the NHL Department of Player Safety ruled that the hit was the result of an unavoidable collision after Dumoulin tried to avoid a full-body check from Alex Ovechkin.

The very next game, Wilson was at it again. This time, his high hit on Zach Aston-Reese not only concussed the rookie but also broke his jaw. That hit earned Wilson a three-game suspension.

But that was of little consolation to the Penguins as Aston-Reese's season was over and the Capitals went on to win the series in six games. -- Bradford

[caption id="attachment_705367" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Chris Archer giving some time for fans. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

July 31, 2018, in Pittsburgh

Hours before the non-waiver trading deadline, the Pirates pulled a major surprise by acquiring two-time All-Star Chris Archer from the Rays for a three-player package. It was a stark reversal from January when the Pirates dealt Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen in a three-day span.

The Pirates paid a steep price in Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and pitching prospect Shane Baz. What made Archer particularly attractive was his affordability, as his 2019 salary will be $7.7 million and his contract also contains club options for $9 million in 2020 and $11 million 2021.

A day earlier, the Pirates acquired Keone Kela from the Rangers for two prospects. Kela had been the closer for Texas but became a set-up man for Felipe Vazquez. -- Perrotto

Jan. 17, 2018, in Pittsburgh

When Todd Haley was hired by the Steelers in 2012 as the team's offensive coordinator, he came with a reputation for being a hot-headed coach who would get in the face of players and the coaches working under him.

But he also had a history of success. Haley was hired by the Steelers with orders from team president Art Rooney II to get the ball out of Roethlisberger's hands more quickly and get him to not take so many sacks, thus extending his career.

And Haley did that, though the Steelers came up short in the playoffs four seasons in a row with Haley running the offense.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, it was Haley who was let go after the team dropped a 45-42 decision to Jacksonville in the postseason.

His act had worn thin on the assistant coaches under him and, perhaps more importantly, Roethlisberger.

Quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner was hired to take his place and Haley was quickly scooped up by the Browns, only to be fired in Cleveland along with head coach Hue Jackson in a midseason purge. -- Lolley

[caption id="attachment_751890" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Jake Guentzel caps off his four-goal night with a handshake. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

April 22, 2018, in Philadelphia

Jake Guentzel led all players with 13 goals in 25 games in the 2017 playoffs. It was a remarkable feat for anyone, let alone a first-year player. But even he had never scored four goals in a playoff game.

Only 34 playoff players had ever done that in league history and only one (Tim Kerr in 1985) had done it by scoring four consecutively.

Until Guentzel, that is.

With Evgeni Malkin out with an injury for Game 6 of the Penguins' first-round series against Philadelphia, Guentzel clinched the series by scoring four times between 19:06 of the second period and 12:58 of the third. He singlehandedly turned what had been a 4-2 deficit into a 6-4 lead that silenced the hostile crowd at the Wells Fargo Center.

Guentzel went on to tally 10 goals in 12 playoff games last spring, joining Mario Lemieux as the only player to record 10 or more goals in each of his first two postseasons. Lemieux did it in three.

Due in large part to his remarkable playoff success, Guentzel was awarded a five-year, $30 million contract extension last week. -- Bradford

April 18, 2018
in Pittsburgh

In an era when professional wrestling was more sport than entertainment, few stars shined brighter than Bruno Sammartino.

A native of Italy who moved with his family to Pittsburgh during World War II, Sammartino first excelled as a weightlifter before entering the world of professional wrestling. Though he worked for multiple promotions, Sammartino became synonymous with the World Wide Wrestling Federation — now WWE — frequently headlining sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden and holding the organization's heavyweight championship for more than 11 years over two reigns, including a 2,803-day run that remains a record.

Sammartino was arguably the most recognizable athlete from Pittsburgh during the 1960s and 70s, and the WWE Hall of Famer with the legendary good-guy persona and signature bear-hug finishing move remained active in the ring until 1987, when at 51, he worked his final match as a tag-team partner with Hulk Hogan. Beloved for both his Italian heritage and pride in calling Pittsburgh home, Sammartino never moved far from the city and lived with his wife of 59 years, Carol, in Ross Township.

Sammartino died at 82 from organ failure connected to ongoing heart problems. Mayor Bill Peduto called Sammartino one of Pittsburgh's greatest ambassadors, and signs welcoming people to the Oakland neighborhood where he grew up still bear his name along with other famous Pittsburghers Dan Marino and Andy Warhol. — Grubba

[caption id="attachment_751834" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Andrew McCutchen waits on-deck during his return to PNC Park. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

May 11, 2018, in Pittsburgh

Andrew McCutchen made his first visit to Pittsburgh since being traded to the Giants on Jan. 15. He received a long ovation from the crowd of 34,720 prior to his first at-bat in the first inning and continued to be cheered throughout the rest of his plate appearances.

McCutchen, who continues to live in the North Hills in the offseason, went 1-for-5 with a double in a game the Pirates won 11-2. The Giants won only once in the three-game series but McCutchen was 4-for-14 with three doubles.

“I don't think there was anything normal about it,” McCutchen said. “You try to make it as normal as possible, but you're playing against guys you played with for a long time and that's not normal. I tried my best not to think about it, but I think they had the advantage over me. I was trying to ride through it. I did my best.” -- Perrotto

Feb. 23, 2018
in Raleigh, N.C.

Jim Rutherford's search for a third-line center didn't end when he acquired Riley Sheahan from Detroit in October.

By the time his team team rolled into Raleigh on Feb. 23 for a game against the Hurricanes, the Penguins had overcome a rough -- a Stanley Cup Hangover, perhaps -- start to the season. They had worked their way back into a playoff position, were 36-22-4 and had won five games in a row.

Still, the general manager wasn't satisfied. The organization felt that an upgrade in the bottom six would give them the edge as they looked to become the first team to win the Stanley Cup three years in row since 1982.

The Penguins identified the Senators' Derick Brassard as that player. But to get him, the Penguins had to pay a substantial price for his services.

In what Rutherford called the most complicated deal he'd ever been part of, he orchestrated a three-way trade with the Senators and Golden Knights.

In it, the Penguins received Brassard, Vincent Dunn and Ottawa's third-round pick in 2018, in exchange for shot-blocking defenseman Ian Cole, prized goaltending prospect Filip Gustavssson, and the team's first-round pick in 2018, along with a third-round pick in 2019. Conversely, the Penguins also sent Ryan Reaves and a fourth-round pick to Vegas for prospect Tobias Lindberg. The moves also came with the Knights picking up 40 percent of the remainder of Brassard's five-year, $25 million contract.

Well, the trade didn't pan out as hoped and never really has.

Brassard suffered a groin injury after scoring just three goals in his first 14 games. Renowned for his clutch playoff performances, Brassard then just had a goal and three assists in 12 playoff games while hampered by injury.

Brassard, a pending unrestricted free agent, has struggled to fit in as a third-line center and has been a constant source of trade speculation.

[caption id="attachment_751845" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Marc-Andre Fleury acknowledges the crowd during his ovation. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Feb. 7, 2018in Pittsburgh

Rarely do hockey fans -- and players -- circle their calendars months in advance for Tuesday night games in February against expansion teams.

Marc-Andre Fleury is that rare exception. When the Vegas Golden Knights and their plucky French-Canadian goaltender rolled into town, it was easily the most-anticipated game of the regular-season.

Over the past few years, the first TV timeout has played host to video tributes over the center ice scoreboard at PPG Paints Arena to welcome back former Penguins who had won Stanley Cup with the team. None, however, was as emotional as the one for Fleury.

He didn't just win three championships in Pittsburgh. He isn't just the franchise leader in nearly every significant category for a goaltender. Fleury had become a civic icon and a symbol of the organization's renaissance which began when the Penguins selected him first overall in the 2003 Draft.

On Feb. 7, 2018, Pittsburgh paid its debt of gratitude by giving Fleury an ear-splitting standing ovation that delayed the resumption of play. At his goal crease, Fleury gave a few awkward waves to acknowledge the Penguins' faithful and then pried his fingers through his goal mask to wipe away tears.

[caption id="attachment_526775" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette leaps over the Steelers defense to score a touchdown in their playoff game. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Jan. 14, 2018in Pittsburgh

Roethlisberger threw a career-high five interceptions in a 30-9 loss to the Jaguars at home in October of 2017, but the rematch in Pittsburgh for the postseason was supposed to be different.

In fact, the Steelers openly talked about a rematch with the Patriots in the playoffs, weeks before they met the Jaguars in the Divisional Round.

As they had in the first meeting, the Jaguars turned an interception into a quick score and bolted out to a 21-0 lead.

The Steelers settled down and cut the lead to 21-7, then looked to be going in for another score when Roethlisberger was sacked and fumbled, with Telvin Smith scooping up the loose ball and returning it 50 yards for a score and a 28-7 lead.

The Steelers trimmed the lead to 28-14 at the half and then 28-21 after the opening possession of the second half, but the Jaguars forced an incompletion on fourth-and-1 from their own 39 early in the fourth quarter and then quickly scored on a 3-yard run by Leonard Fournette to make it a 14-point lead again.

The two teams traded touchdowns on their next four possessions and then Jacksonville recovered an onside kick with just over two minutes remaining and leading, 42-35. Though they didn't get a first down, they only had to move the ball nine yards to get a 45-yard Josh Lambo field goal for a 45-35 lead.

Roethlisberger again led the Steelers to a score, but this one, a 4-yard TD pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, came with just one second remaining in the game as the Jaguars advanced to the AFC Championship against New England. -- Lolley

[caption id="attachment_617307" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Ryan Shazier and fiancee Michelle Rodriguez in Nashville. - AP[/caption]

April 26, 2018, in Arlington, Texas

Ryan Shazier's recovery from an on-field spinal column injury has been a story that has continued throughout 2018, even though the injury initially occurred in 2017 at a Dec. 4 game in Cincinnati.

There have been a number of milestones for Shazier, including him releasing Instagram photos of him standing in the week before the Super Bowl and lifting weights just a few weeks ago.

But nothing prepared anyone for the moment that happened April 26, 2018, when Shazier, accompanied by his fiancée, Michelle Rodriguez, walked to the podium at the NFL Draft in Arlington, Texas, to announce the Steelers' selection of Terrell Edmunds in the first round.

The Steelers did a great job of keeping their intentions under wraps on this and it was the defining moment of the draft, without a doubt. -- Lolley

Jan. 13-15, 2018, in Pittsburgh

In a span of just over 48 hours, the Pirates made their fans irate by trading Gerrit Cole to the Astros on Jan. 13, then Andrew McCutchen to the Giants two days later. The Pirates got a total of six players in return, none of whom were established major leaguers.

The Pirates overcame the losses of their best pitcher and position player to post an 82-79 record for just their fourth winning season in 26 years. However, many angry fans stayed away from PNC Park as the season attendance was over 450,000 less in 2018 than 2017.

Bob Nutting said the McCutchen trade was “one of the most emotionally agonizing decisions that we have had to make in my tenure. Andrew helped create so many special memories both on and off the field for me, our organization and our fans. He did so while always carrying himself with humility, dignity and grace.” -- Perrotto

[caption id="attachment_751808" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Evgeny Kuznetsov celebrates his series winner. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

May 7, 2018 in Pittsburgh

The odds of the Penguins winning three Stanley Cups in a row were always astronomically stacked against them. No team had won three in a row since the Islanders dynasty of the early '80s.

And no team still has pulled off the three-peat after the Capitals dashed the Penguins' dynasty dreams in the second round last spring.

Though the Penguins were 9-1 all-time against Washington in postseason series, including series wins in the Cup-winning years of 2016 and '17, they were exposed as a one-line team that was prone to odd-man rushes and breakaways against.

After the Penguins managed to tie the series at two games apiece, the tide turned in Game 5 when the Capitals scored four times in the third period for a 6-3 win in Washington. That sent the series back to PPG Paints Arena and a chance for the Capitals to end a quarter-century of playoff futility against their division rivals.

At 5:27 of overtime, somewhat fittingly, Evgeny Kuznetsov scored a breakaway goal on Matt Murray as the Capitals advanced to the conference final for the first time in the Alex Ovechkin era. -- Bradford

[caption id="attachment_750693" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Tyler Matakevich and Bud Dupree watch the Browns. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

1. ALL ... THAT ... DRAMA
Dec. 31, 2018, in Pittsburgh

It wasn't all that long ago the Steelers' hopes rested on a group people began affectionately calling the Killer Bs -- Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. Heck, some even added Chris Boswell to the group.

But the Killer Bs pretty much ended with a whimper. While Roethlisberger became the first Steelers QB to throw for 5,000 yards in a season, his 16 interceptions led the NFL.

Bryant? He was traded to Oakland. Bell? Never reported to the Steelers, skipping out on a $14.54-million salary. Brown? He had a tumultuous season that ended with him apparently getting into a dust-up last week with Roethlisberger that got him suspended/benched for the regular season finale against the Bengals. It even trickled down to Boswell, who made just 13 of 20 field goals before landing on injured reserve three days before the regular season finale.

It all added up to a wasted season for the Steelers, who failed to make the playoffs with their 9-6-1 record after a surreal scene at Heinz Field that saw players and fans alike watching the big board hoping for a needed Cleveland victory that never came.

But the Steelers could be better off down the road because of it. Bryant is already gone. Bell won't be back, either. And Brown could be on his way to forcing his way out of Pittsburgh, as well.

"What do you do? Here's a guy who doesn't give a damn and we'll treat it as such," guard and team NFLPA player rep Ramon Foster asked Sept. 5 when Bell failed to report and sign his franchise tender. "I just hate it came to this."

And on the day the Steelers were eliminated, Foster would say, "It was all there. We had everything. You saw it. It just didn't work."

There's always next year. -- Lolley

PART 2, Wednesday: The year in quotes
PART 3, Thursday: The year in photos

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