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Is it the Last Ride for the Penguins Championship Core?

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Pittsburgh Penguins Evgeni Malkin celebrates with Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby

To all good things, there comes an end. Through serendipity, a little bad luck which brought new players to the fore, and good decision-making, the Pittsburgh Penguins have another legitimate, real, and tangible shot at the Stanley Cup. They won the East Division despite being crushed by injuries, and one can only imagine how good a healthy roster can be.

Their Round One playoff series against the New York Islanders doesn’t yet have a start date, but that’s no matter. These Penguins have another real shot at championship glory. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang also have a shot at becoming the most decorated core since the 1980s Edmonton Oilers.

It may also be their last shot.

But that’s not something the players can or should think about. Nothing good comes from worrying about the consequences of failure.

“No, we don’t really talk about it. I think it’s enough when you have to prepare and get ready to start. So we’re excited, and we’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of playoff games together, important ones,” Crosby said. “So I think you try to cherish every opportunity and make the most of it…you’ve just got to take advantage of the opportunities when you get them. And we have one. So we’ll look to do something with it.”

There is a lot of history with the Penguins core.

Crosby was the youngest captain to ever hoise the Stanley Cup. At just 21-years-old, “Sid the Kid” and his compadres not yet old enough to rent a car blazed through the NHL on a mission, which the Pittsburgh Penguins achieved in June 2009. There were supposed to be many more Cups, but failure and drama followed.

The Crosby concussion drama lasted nearly two seasons from 2011-2013. The hockey world wondered if they lost the face of the game.

Kris Letang struggled in the playoffs early in his career, but the 2005 third-round pick became one of the premier defensemen and had a 2020-21 season worthy of some Norris Trophy votes.

Young Evgeni Malkin was a bull in the postseason and earned the Conn Smyth in 2009. He carried the Penguins last season when Crosby was out. 

Seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?

Three All-Stars. Future Hall of Famers. Talent that defined an organization and a hockey generation. They are the last three still standing from a powerhouse team built through the draft and shrewd trades that carried the organization from the Mario Lemieux era to the Sidney Crosby era.

The trio said goodbye to their brothers in arms. 2006 second-overall pick Jordan Staal wanted a bigger role on a new team in 2012. Colby Armstrong was trade bait for Marian Hossa in 2008. Pascal Dupuis eventually succumbed to health problems in 2015-16. In the seasons following the 2009 Stanley Cup, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi, and Max Talbot left via free agency.

For a while, it seemed the organization imploded, and regret would be the lasting legacy.

Current head coach Mike Sullivan breathed new life into the remaining core with his commanding presence and steely determination, which again ignited Crosby. Two more Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017 followed.

However, thoughts of “More Cups!” were immediately followed by disappointment.

And then there were three. Crosby. Malkin. Letang.

Then it was almost down to two.

When the organization and Evgeni Malkin stared into the abyss and considered moving on from each other in the summer of 2019, insiders told PHN that Sidney Crosby bridged the gaps between the coach, management, and player. The saga renewed Malkin’s Penguins career. His 74 points (25-49-74) in 55 games last season stood as a testament.

The Penguins big three want to retire as Pittsburgh Penguins. They’ve been through everything together. The Stanley Cups, the failures, and the parades have inexorably linked Crosby, Malkin, and Letang.

Keeping the big three together has been the firmly stated goal of the organization, even if they’ve waffled occassionally.  But sports and economic realities rarely cooperate in the 21st-century salary cap era.

The Penguins are nearing the end of their championship window. Many, including this scribe, thought it closed with a loud slam after a dreadful playoff exit last August to the 24th, and lowest, seeded Montreal Canadiens. That loss followed an embarrassing four-game sweep in 2019 by the New York Islanders.

But new players like Kasperi Kapanen, Mike Matheson, Cody Ceci, and greatly improved goaltending courtesy of Tristan Jarry, plus newly acquired Jeff Carter, have seemingly kicked open the door of possibilities again.

Unless they haven’t.

Two straight pathetic playoff losses are not a foundation on which the status quo can rest. A third would almost necessarily spell the end of the greatest salary cap dynasty in the NHL. No team has won more Stanley Cups, and the Penguins are the winningest regular-season team (704 wins since 2005-06).

No team has had more success.

And so the Pittsburgh Penguins are again staring up at the Mt. Everest challenge that is the NHL playoffs. Just getting to the playoffs is Base Camp 1. A majority of pundits didn’t think they had the ability to get here, but for the 15th consecutive season, they have.

And they’re a solid favorite to advance past the struggling New York Islanders to Round Two against either the Boston Bruins or Washington Capitals.

The Penguins have new management. After Jim Rutherford bolted in January, the organization turned to Ron Hextall as the new GM and Brian Burke as the President of Hockey Operations.

New management often likes to make changes. Burke especially has a sweet tooth for heavy players with mean streaks. Surely, there is additional pressure on Sullivan and the crew?

“I don’t think so. We put enough pressure on ourselves to win. We’re trying to live up to our own expectations. And so that hasn’t changed, and that’s been the same way every year that I’ve been here,” Sullivan rebutted PHN’s question. “And, you know, we have high expectations, and we’re going to do everything within our power to have success. But I don’t think because circumstances have changed at the management level that it changes the expectations in the (room).”

If there is another playoff flameout, surely the new management will have a mandate from Penguins ownership to make changes to ensure the Penguins future is built around mid-20s players such as Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Jared McCann, Kapanen, John Marino, Matheson, and Jarry.

And Sidney Crosby.

Actually, even amongst the mid-20s players, the only Pittsburgh Penguins player who would be safe is indeed Sidney Crosby.

With a good playoff run, perhaps they convince the new management to keep the group together until the end. Allow the heroes of the story to ride off into the sunset together.

But as Butch and Sundance proved, that isn’t always how the story ends. The Penguins control their own destiny. If they win multiple series this year, they’ll make a strong case to stay together.

But, if they suffer another embarrassing loss, the greatest trio in the NHL since Gretzky-Messier-Coffey might never see another day in the same sweater. That’s the way it works.

Maybe someday, we’ll learn when Game 1 will be played.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Tony
Tony
4 months ago

While always winning is great… perhaps we shouldn’t attach too much significance to an early playoff exit.  Consider the five previous five Stanley Cup winners… and their previous season records:

2020 Tampa Bay Lightning (2019 Lost NHL First Round)
2019 St. Louis Blues (2018 Did Not Make the Playoffs) 
2018 Washington Capitals (2017 Lost NHL Second Round)
2017 Pittsburgh Penguins (2016 Won Stanley Cup)
2016 Pittsburgh Penguins (2015 Lost NHL First Round) 

Donny
Donny
4 months ago
Reply to  Tony

Nice dig, Tony. St. Louis is really the anomaly in there, as their year of success was a blip. But for the other teams, everyone gnashed their teeth about how they “couldn’t get over the hump” given their prior playoff experience.

William Maloni
William Maloni
4 months ago

Excellent article

!Isles have a lot of talent and an excellent HC.

George M
George M
4 months ago

I think you are correct. If the Pens lose a first round series for the 3rd year in a row it is going to be hard to justify keeping them together any longer. I always thought they should have traded Malkin 2 or 3 years ago as the haul for him would have been impressive with multiple first round picks and a quality player as well.

David
David
4 months ago

“The trio said goodbye to their brothers in arms.” “The big three.” This was a good article, but unless I missed it, there is no mention at all of Fleury. To me, that is a glaring omission.

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