It was a sad night at PPG Paints Arena. There was no funeral procession or ceremony on Tuesday night in what could be the final season with the Pittsburgh Penguins for stalwarts Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, and Bryan Rust. There was no warning, advance notice, or way to brace for the jarring and complete collapse.
In a playoff series, things become inevitable. The end or potential extinguishment is defined, and both teams usually know it. There have been plenty of signals over the past few weeks, but the visible collision of the Penguins and their decline on Tuesday in the 5-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers was powerful nonetheless.
After 16 years, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have given everything to the Penguins organization. They took friendly deals when contemporaries were paid more. They sacrificed and bled for the organization on the way to three Stanley Cups.
But if this is all the Penguins have left, it’s time to say goodbye.
They stand in elite company amongst Hall of Famers and greats, but if the Penguins are no better than what we’ve witnessed for weeks, it cannot continue for another season.
The recipe is using stale ingredients, and the cake is crumbling.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have tried to find their mojo, get to their game, or otherwise rise to the challenge of the serious part of the NHL schedule.
But they have failed. Other teams have beaten the Penguins by playing better, being better, and the Penguins’ effort has withered in an unspoken seeming acceptance.
“I think, like the rest of the team, we probably got a little frustrated when the bounces didn’t go our way. But that’s just something that I think we have to work through, especially with this last game. We’ve got to keep our heads up no matter what happens in the game, just keep grinding away because we know we’re good players. We have a good team. So I think at this point, we’ve just got to fight through whatever adversity that we have in the games,” Rickard Rakell said.
Perhaps it was the pair of losses to the New York Rangers a few weeks ago when the Penguins realized that another team demonstrably outskated them. Maybe it was the heartless loss to the Washington Capitals, and the “almost had ’em” losses to the Boston Bruins that mortally wounded the Penguins.
After a four-day rest last week, the Penguins had a chance to reset and begin playoff preparations. Things began well with a win over the New York Islanders and against the soft, unmotivated Detroit Red Wings.
When pushed, the Penguins could not push back.
“…Confidence is a fleeting thing. You can get it back just as fast as you lose it. And your biggest foundation for confidence–for me–is preparation and readiness. And that’s your foundation. And that’s what we need to build,” Sullivan said. “So, I know this group is capable. They’re an accomplished group. We’ve got a lot of experience inside that locker room. We got to draw on that experience right now more than ever,
If a quick end does occur, either at the hand of the New York Rangers or the Florida Panthers, it should be the end of the road for this Penguins era. There will be no more “hope” to retool around three players in their mid-30s (four, if you count Jeff Carter, and five, including Bryan Rust, who will be 30 next month).
In the past, I have argued for loyalty, or to allow the players to decide their fate based on play, and for the Pittsburgh Penguins to allow Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin to deservedly retire with the only organization they’ve ever known.
However, in a sense, the Penguins’ core has indeed decided their future. This isn’t good enough. It’s not even close, which is not fair to either side.
Obviously, the collapse isn’t Evgeni Malkin’s fault. Or Kris Letang. But they are primary figures in the team’s success or failure.
Sentiment be damned. GM Ron Hextall made a shrewd addition at the NHL trade deadline for Rakell, who has worked beyond the most optimistic predictions. Yet the team has no answers for opponents. Evgeni Malkin has one more game to score his 20th goal of the season and do so in only 40 games, but Sullivan generously called Malkin’s even-strength play “sporadic.”
Sullivan said Rust was helpful to keep Malkin on the straight and narrow, literally. But that line didn’t produce, so Rakell was back with Malkin, and Rust was back with Sidney Crosby.
Neither line produced on Tuesday, though Crosby’s line had some pretty chances, which ended with Mike Smith.
But the whole of the team gave up. White flag. Surrender.
It was an unusual sight for these Pittsburgh Penguins, built on Mike Sullivan’s “resilience,” “Just play,” and mental toughness.
A team doesn’t discover resilience in the playoffs. Nor does it find its identity. Those are assignments for the regular season, and the knowledge is to be applied in the postseason.
Unfortunately, the Penguins have unraveled, and not even Sidney Crosby, who has been carrying the team on his back for weeks, can save them.
And if this is the reality, these Penguins, and this Penguins era, need to end so another group can begin again.