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The Emotional Penguins Stories We Overlooked

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Jeff Carter retires

It seemed like a neverending series of dramatic storylines, disappointments, and frustration. The Pittsburgh Penguins season had more plot twists than any evening drama series could imagine but with far more episodes. The NHL schedule makers packed the Penguins season tightly in the beginning and end, so a storyline never lasted too long.

Except for the power play disaster. That was a season-long arc from which there was no escape.

In the process of chasing the team from coast to coast, there were a few moments that broke the wall of cliche answers and lifted the veil to give us a look at the human side of the game.

Those moments came and went far too quickly, erased by another turnover, loss, big goal, or win. The sand washed back out into the ocean of the season, quickly forgotten if it was even known.

Rickard Rakell

Rakell’s struggle to score goals for much of the first half of the season was epic. The slick, talented winger who could make Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin look even better entered a dry spell, the likes of which turned the Sahara desert from a lush tropical spot to a desert.

Rakell scored precisely zero goals in his first 20 games. He was interrupted by an upper-body injury that cost him one month of games, and his first goal was scored in his 21st game on Dec. 23.

The arid offense output wore heavily on Rakell. You could see it. You could hear it in his voice when he discussed it in the locker room. On Dec. 15, as he prepared to return to the lineup against the Minnesota Wild three days later, he opened the vault.

“I was in a pretty dark place when everything went down, but I think I’ve got some time now to process this,” Rakell admitted after practice. “And for me, it’s just trying to look at this as a fresh start and new opportunities out there and just try to play my game.”

Read More: Rakell Close to Return, ‘In a Pretty Dark Place’

After he finally punctured the score sheet with a goal on Dec. 20, Rakell had 15 goals and 17 assists over the next 50 games. Those numbers don’t represent a great season, but not a terrible one, either.

The avalanche of frustration and doubt that enveloped Rakell over the first six weeks and through his rehab washed away, but at the moment, it was just another story in a dreary Penguins season.

Jeff Carter

The scapegoat retired. Before it happened, he told only a few close friends on the team, including captain Sidney Crosby, that he knew it was time to go.

Carter, 39, was a healthy scratch for the first time in his career last November on the Penguins west coast road trip. He didn’t play against the Anaheim Ducks, but in a show of his character, he wandered out into a dank hallway at the otherwise brightly lit Anaheim practice facility to face the media. Small industrial lights more befitting of a subway tunnel than lit the charcoal gray concrete block walls.

And Carter took questions about what it’s like to be a scratch. He didn’t broom them aside or caustically dismiss the small group of reporters who asked. Of course, it hurt the player. After a few weeks of obviously subpar play, it looked like the end.

However, the hockey gods weren’t done with Carter, and injuries launched him back into the lineup in a familiar spot: Los Angeles. Carter won a pair of Stanley Cups with the LA Kings at what is now known as Crypto.com Arena, and it was too perfect that was the spot where Carter revived his season.

No, he didn’t reclaim his 30-goal scorer’s touch or even the nine goals in his first 14 Penguins games pace, but he killed penalties, won 62.5% of his faceoffs, and was a solid fourth-line contributor on a team without much bottom-six help.

Carter’s point totals dropped from 45 in his first full season with the Penguins to 29 last season and 15 this season. Yet, there was a possibility he would return for one more year on a team-friendly contract. He probably could have if he wanted.

But with one final game on the schedule against the New York Islanders on Long Island, in what was an otherwise meaningless exhibition as the Penguins didn’t get the bounces and were eliminated from the playoff race the night before, Carter’s intentions became obvious.

Toward the end of the game, word leaked on the ice. Referees gave shoulder pats and handshakes. Teammates were obviously affected. Even the New York Islanders offered congratulations and affection.

Perhaps many fans were too ensconced in the personal and team blame game to notice or appreciate the moment. Carter did make $3.25 million and tallied just 15 points. For many, he was a symbol of the Penguins’ advanced age and poor management decisions.

Yet he never seemed affected by any of the outside noise. As he laughingly told PHN near the end of the 2022-23 season, “I couldn’t care less what (reporters) write.”

Carter did a quick media scrum following the game. Yep. He was done. Sidney Crosby paid tribute. So did coach Mike Sullivan. And that was it. Carter rode off into the sunset with little to no fanfare and no advance warning.

And that was it. An amazing career with 442 goals, 851 points, and two Stanley Cup rings ended.

This, too, seemed like a largely overlooked yet poignant, important moment worth revisiting now before we turn the page toward the 2024 NHL Draft, free agency, and what comes next for the 2024-25 Pittsburgh Penguins.