PITTSBURGH — For the better part of two decades, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have served as the foundation upon which the Pittsburgh Penguins built three Stanley Cup champions.
For the better part of a year, all three understood the 2021-22 season could be their last ride together.
And for the better part of a month, Crosby did his best to block it out. I can’t anymore. He neither can anyone else. Not after a gut-wrenching playoff loss to the New York Rangers, when a 3-1 series lead ended with the Penguins being on the wrong end of the handshake line at raucous Madison Square Garden after the Rangers pulled off one staggering comeback after another.
The last was a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 7 that marked Pittsburgh’s fourth straight one-and-done during a time of year Crosby, Malkin and Letang have helped define.
“They’re all different,” said Crosby, who missed a portion of Game 5 and all of Game 6 after getting hit in the head by New York’s Jacob Trouba. “It’s kind of hard to go through all of them. I think if we were to group all of them, I’d think this one, I probably feel like we deserved if I was to categorize all of them.”
Crosby is well aware this could have been the last time Malkin and Letang are among those wearing a Penguins sweater. Both are free agents this summer, as is forward Bryan Rust, whose dynamic play helped the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. All three could be too expensive to keep.
“I think we knew that coming into the playoffs,” Crosby said. “But I think you try not to really think about that. You hope that we can make a good run.”
In a way, they did. Pittsburgh led in six of seven games during the series, including two-goal advantages in both Game 5 and Game 6 and a one-goal edge with less than six minutes to go in regulation in the finale.
“It’s disappointing,” said Penguins forward Jake Guentzel, who scored eight goals during the series. “We were right there. We put ourselves in a good spot to be up 3-1.”
New York’s consistent ability to pounce on Penguin miscues helped. The last of those, Danton Heinen’s turnover and ensuing penalty that gave the Rangers a power play in overtime, set up a sequence that ultimately ended with Artemi Panarin’s winner.
In a way, the series was symbolic of a wildly uneven season. A gritty start in which role players like Evan Rodrigues filled in spectacularly while Crosby and Malkin (among others) recovered from injuries. Then a two-month stretch where they were arguably the best team in the league, followed by a limp to the finish that included three mostly listless losses to the Rangers.
It’s one of the reasons New York entered the series as the prohibitive favorite. While Crosby stressed his team couldn’t just flip a switch and get going, that’s precisely what the Penguins did in taking three of four to start the series.
And then suddenly, leads, momentum and a promising postseason vanished in the hockey equivalent of a New York minute. An offseason of potentially seismic turnover looms.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to get this far, let alone get in the playoffs,” Crosby said. “We had high expectations. We battled through a lot. And so many guys contributed. I think for all those reasons we thought we’d still be playing.”
The possibility of Malkin and Letang returning comes down to money. Malkin turns 36 in July. Letang turned 35 a month ago. Both are still powerful players.
Malkin finished with 20 goals despite missing nearly half the season while recovering from knee surgery. Letang finished fifth in the league in average ice time and dished out a career-best 58 assists while consistently playing a more disciplined style.
Fenway Sports Group — which bought the team from Ron Burkle and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux last fall — has pledged to continue spending to the salary cap. Still, keeping both franchise icons would likely require at least one of them taking a bit of a discount and Montreal is expected to make a serious bid for Letang to finish his career in his hometown.
Rust, just 30, has topped 20 goals in three straight seasons and had a productive series against the Rangers with two goals and six assists. What he commands on the open market may depend on whether teams think his output from him is a byproduct of playing alongside Crosby.
Jarry bounced back from a rocky playoff series against the Islanders last spring to make his second All-Star team. A broken foot suffered in mid-April forced him out of the lineup and when Casey DeSmith left Game 1 against the Rangers with a core injury, Pittsburgh turned to journeyman Louis Domingue.
While Domingue played capably if not spectacularly in five-plus games, the team’s decision not to fortify depth at the trade deadline may have ended up costing the Penguins a chance to move on.