NEW YORK — Like the great westerns, Sidney Crosby might ride to the rescue just in time to save the Pittsburgh Penguins. Game 7s are unpredictable, but the cavalry might be coming with Crosby and No. 1 goalie Tristan Jarry.
Just in the nick of time.
The thought didn’t register until close to the puck drop for Game 6 of the Round One series with the Penguins and New York Rangers. It struck me as I did my customary handshakes with several PPG Paints Arena ushers, some of whom are close to 90-years-old. Was Game 6 the final Penguins home game for Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang? Is Game 7 their final Penguins game?
After years of stability, the Penguins have new ownership. New management.
It’s a sobering thought. The Penguins were most likely headed for victory in Game 5 until their fellow core member was taken out by something just short of a flying elbow from Jacob Trouba. The league didn’t see a problem with it or Malkin’s teeth-bruising cross-check later in the third period.
Despite a barrage of colorful language from Rangers fans who generously contributed to PHN’s ballooning profits and Dave Molinari’s new position, their assault on the English language, heavy with misogyny, left my opinion unchanged. Trouba should have received a multi-game suspension, and it is just the latest joke from the NHL DoPS, which has enough comedy gold for an hour-long Netflix special.
However, Sidney Crosby sent electricity through the UPMC Lemieux Complex on Saturday when he showed up at practice–as a full participant. He could play in Game 7.
It’s been 16 years since Evgeni Malkin looked at future captain Sidney Crosby, who was waiting to follow the Russian rookie to the ice for warmups and demanded to go on the ice last, “three years, Super League.”
Malkin asserted himself as the senior hockey sibling, despite Crosby’s eye-popping rookie season the year before, and the boys have held the order for 16 years.
Letang was the steal of the 2005 NHL Draft held at a hotel in Ottawa because of the preceding year-long lockout and a new CBA signed too recently to allow the league to prepare an arena for the draft. The young Letang had boy-band frosted tips and spent another year in the QMJHL before filtering to the Penguins organization.
It’s been a wild ride for all involved. Remember Letang’s early playoff struggles. Crosby’s concussion saga of 2011-12 included the best hockey of Evgeni Malkin’s life. It ended when a specialist figured out that Crosby didn’t have a concussion but a soft-tissue neck injury only after Crosby missed a year of his hockey life.
There were the parties on the South Side. The boys, including Jordan Staal and Max Talbot, held court in Mario’s on the South Side.
And there were Stanley Cups.
Those kids are gone, replaced with men in their mid-30s. A few gray hairs on the beard. Contracts measuring in the tens of millions. They have families and homes of their own instead of living in spare rooms of veteran players like Sergei Gonchar and Mario Lemieux.
“Passion,” their first head coach, Michel Therrien, told PHN in 2019. “I remember, they were teenagers almost. I had to keep them out of the rink because they’d spend their days at the rink. This was all they knew.”
With some irony, the crew might have played their final game as Pittsburgh Penguins because an opponent took away Crosby, though it looks like the Penguins will have a fighting chance in Game 7. Crosby could return, and the trio will get one more crack at it.
Evgeni Malkin turned in a vintage performance in Game 6. The team sure could use another.
But Game 6 could have been the final ride in Pittsburgh.
Penguins Penalty Kill & Power Play Coaches
How much offseason heat will be applied to assistant coaches Mike Vellucci and Todd Rierden?
Vellucci was seen as Jim Rutherford’s guy when he was hired as the WBS Penguins coach. This season, the PK was ranked first or second in the NHL for much of the season, but there were dips and hiccups, especially late in the season.
The PK has been unacceptable in this series. It’s assumed the Rangers will score.
The PK also stumbled greatly after the NHL trade deadline. GM Ron Hextall dealt light scoring forward Zach Aston-Reese to Anaheim in the Rickard Rakell deal. Bryan Rust joined the PK. It shouldn’t have created that much of a disparity.
The Penguins had only a few shorthanded goals this season. And Tristan Jarry was a big reason the PK was stellar.
The Penguins’ power play never got on track this season. It languished in the mid-teens, at best, before falling back near 20th at the end of the regular season.
It seems too easy to dump that on Kris Letang. Or Evgeni Malkin. Those guys were part of the great Penguins power plays, too. For some reason, it didn’t work this season.
The Penguins’ special teams have let the team down and been a deciding factor in every loss. If they stink on both sides in Game 7, that’s probably going to be how the story, and maybe the final chapter of this team, is written.
Pittsburgh Penguins Game 7s
I’ve covered the Game 7s since 2016. The 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final remains one of if not the best game the Penguins have played under Sullivan. The 2017 Game 7 in Washington was so intense that a couple of team personnel had to leave the arena to take a walk before the game, but it became a comfortable 2-0 win. The 2017 Eastern Conference Final double OT thriller against Ottawa was a master class in patience–the Penguins dominated for what seemed like hours.
In each of those wins, the Penguins–specifically Sullivan–did a little something different. Sullivan added a wrinkle, a tweak, a surprise for the opponent, which worked magic.
I wonder if there’s anything Sullivan can do with this team. The Rangers are a bit quicker. The crowd feeds them like gasoline feeds a fire. And aren’t we all getting a bit softer in our old age?
I also know that one Penguins player chuckled after the Game 7 win over Washington in 2017, “we knew they’d be tight.”
Jeff Carter won the 2014 Stanley Cup after the LA Kings won three–yes, THREE–Game 7s.
I wonder how much experience will play a role in this game? How will Igor Shesterkin, who has been leaky all series, handle the increased pressure? I wonder how Tristan Jarry (I expect him to play) will handle it and the rust of not playing for a month? Or Louis Domingue?
The Pittsburgh Penguins are never short on drama, but this one especially has more plots, subplots, and secondary characters than any Western. This one could be the end of much we’ve taken for granted.
The puck drops just after 7 p.m.