Pittsburgh (AP) – For most of the two decades, Sidney Crosby, Eugene Malkin and Chris Letang served as the foundation on which the Pittsburgh Penguins built three Stanley Cup champions.
For most of the year, all three realized that the 2021-22 season could be their last trip together.
And for most of the month Crosby did his best to block it. He can’t anymore. Nor can anyone else. Not after a stunning defeat in the playoffs by the New York Rangers, when the 3-1 series lead ended with the Penguins ending up at the wrong end of the handshake line in bustling Madison Square Garden after the Rangers got one stunning return after another.
The last was a 4-3 win in overtime in Game 7, which was Pittsburgh’s fourth win in a row at a time of year when Crosby, Malkin and Letang helped decide.
“They’re all different,” said Crosby, who missed part 5 of Game 5 and all of Game 6 after being hit in the head by New York’s Jacob Trumpet. “It’s pretty hard to get through everything. I think if we’d grouped them all, I’d have thought this one, I probably feel we deserved it if I’d classified them all.”
Crosby is well aware that this may have been the last time Malkin and Letang were among those wearing Penguins sweaters. Both are free agents this summer, as is striker Brian Rast, whose dynamic play helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cups in a row in 2016 and 2017. Keeping all three can be too expensive.
“I think we knew we were going to the playoffs,” Crosby said. “But I think you’re trying not to think about it really. You hope we can run well.”
In a sense, they did. Pittsburgh led in six of seven games in the series, including a two-goal advantage in both Game 5 and Game 6 and a one-goal advantage less than six minutes before reaching the main match in the final.
“It’s a disappointment,” said Penguins forward Jake Henzel, who scored eight goals during the series. “We were here. We put ourselves in a good position to go 3-1.”
Helped by New York’s constant ability to pounce on Penguins ’mistakes. The latter, Dantan Heinen’s turnaround and the next penalty that gave the Rangers a game in overtime, created a sequence that ended in winner Artemiy Panarin.
In a sense, the series has become a symbol of the wildly uneven season. A tough start in which roles like Evan Rodriguez performed spectacularly, and Crosby and Malkin (among others) recovered from injuries. Then two months when they may have been the best team in the league, then moved on to a finish that included three mostly reluctant losses to the Rangers.
This is one of the reasons why New York entered the series as an incredible favorite. While Crosby stressed that his team can’t just flick the switch and start, that’s exactly what the Penguins did, taking three of the four to start the series.
And then suddenly the leading positions, momentum and promising postseason disappeared in the hockey equivalent of the New York minute. Off-season potential seismic turnover is approaching.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to go that far, let alone reach the playoffs,” Crosby said. “We had high expectations. We went through a lot. And a lot of guys contributed. I think for all these reasons we thought we would still play.”
The possibility of Malkin and Letang returning comes down to money. Malkin turns 36 in July. A month ago, Letang turned 35 years old. Both are still powerful players.
Malkin finished with 20 goals, despite missing nearly half of the season while recovering from knee surgery. Letang finished fifth in the league in average time on the ice and made the career-best 58 assists, steadily playing in a more disciplined style.
Fenway Sports Group – which acquired the team from Ron Berkeley and Mario Lemieux Hall of Fame last fall – has promised to continue spending until the salary cap. However, maintaining both franchise badges is likely to require at least one of them to get a small discount, and Montreal is expected to make a serious bid for Letang to end his career in his hometown.
Rast, who is just 30, has scored 20 goals in three consecutive seasons and spent the final series against the Rangers with two goals and six assists. What he manages in the open market may depend on whether the teams consider his result to be a by-product of the game along with Crosby.
Last spring Jerry returned from a serious playoff series against the Islanders and became his second all-star team. A broken foot, which he received in mid-April, forced him out of the squad, and when Casey Desmith left the 1st game against the Rangers due to a head injury, Pittsburgh turned to mobster Louis Domingo.
While Domingue played skillfully, if not spectacularly, in five-plus games, the team’s decision not to strengthen the depth in terms of trading may have ultimately cost the Penguins a chance to move on.