Penguins' Last Dance? Game 7 Loss to Rangers Marks End of Crosby-Malkin Era

Abbey MastraccoMay 16, 2022

Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

NEW YORK — The player once known as Sid the Kid is no longer a kid anymore.

You probably couldn't tell based on the way he played in the Pittsburgh Penguins' first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series against the New York Rangers. He put up 10 points in six games, missing Game 6 with what was suspected to be a head injury, and the Rangers had no answer for his line. 

But without the helmet and the pads, you realize Sidney Crosby is now 34 years old. His playoff beard is flecked with gray. His demeanor is heavy. His two teammates that he has gone to battle with so many times and won three Stanley Cups with may no longer be on the ice with him come next season. 

When the Penguins' playoff run was ended by the Rangers' 4-3 overtime win in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night, it might have ended the era of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Malkin and Letang will soon be unrestricted free agents, and with a tight salary-cap situation, it's unclear if the Penguins will be able to retain them. 

And even if they can, the warning sign is clear: It's time for the Penguins to start planning for the post-Big Three era after a fourth straight first-round exit. 

"I think it's something that you try not to think about, and you hope that you make a good run," Crosby said. "But it's something in the back of your mind. It's something that you know is a possibility coming into the playoffs."

Malkin was drafted in 2004. Crosby and Letang were drafted a year later. They all entered the league within a year of one another as heralded rookies, and they lived up to the billing.

What the trio accomplished is what every team tries to emulate (and often fails) when you have three young players of their caliber: You build around them in hopes that they will all peak at the same time. By the time they're at their most dangerous, the club will have a wide-open championship window. 

It was Pittsburgh's Big Three that kept the engine running when the management was restructured. Former general manager Ray Shero and former head coach Dan Bylsma have their names etched on that 2009 trophy, but it was Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan who had taken their places by the time they won back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017. 

"They're generational players, and Pittsburgh has been lucky enough to have three of them for the last 15 years," goalie Tristan Jarry said. "The bonds that they've created throughout the team [are] irreplaceable." 

Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Jarry has solidified his place in the organization's future. The goalie has shown that he is not the same one who bore the brunt of the loss last year when the team was eliminated just east of Midtown Manhattan on Long Island by the Islanders. 

A year ago, the narrative was that the Penguins had chosen the wrong goalie. To make matters worse, the goalie whose shadow Jarry was still in—Marc Andre-Fleury—won a Vezina Trophy with the Vegas Golden Knights. 

This time, it was another New York team and another first-round series, but Jarry looked like a completely different goalie in the regular season.

Maybe the shadow wasn't quite as harsh as it once was or it's finally disappeared completely, but he turned in an All-Star campaign, and his .919 regular-season save percentage was tied for the sixth-best in the league. 

This series might have been different had he not been injured for the first six games. The goalie behind him, Casey DeSmith, was hurt during the first overtime of Game 1, and Pittsburgh was down to its third-string goalie, Louis Domingue, for much of the series. Domingue played admirably, but the Penguins had three chances to eliminate the Rangers in Games 5, 6 and 7, and they blew leads in each of those three games and goaltending was part of the problem.

"They're a balanced team; they've got a dynamic power play, and they've got one of the best goalies in the league," Sullivan said. 

The Rangers showed a remarkable ability to come back, but this particular comeback effort was not without controversy. Mika Zibanejad scored at 14:15 in the third period to tie the game at 3-3 and put it into overtime just seconds after Pittsburgh defenseman Marcus Pettersson skated off the ice without his helmet. The Penguins insist Alexis Lafreniere intentionally took off Pettersson's helmet during a tie-up behind the net in order to get him off the ice.

According to the rule, Pettersson could have retrieved his helmet and continued playing, but if a player is unable to put the helmet back on, then they have to skate immediately to the bench or a penalty will be assessed. 

Maybe it was Pettersson not knowing the rule, maybe he didn't know where his helmet was, but Sullivan, Jarry and Crosby all expressed their displeasure with the rule.

"I think it stinks," Sullivan said. "He has to come off and his helmet got pulled off intentionally. That's the rule." 

"A terrible rule probably ends up being the difference," Crosby said. 

Prior to that, the Penguins looked unbeatable.

Sullivan was out-coaching Gerard Gallant. Jake Guentzel's eighth goal of the series was confirmed as a good goal after he kicked the puck from his skate to his stick and batted it past Igor Shesterkin in midair to give the visitors a 2-1 lead in the second period.

Evan Rodrigues, a fourth-liner who was in Sullivan's doghouse after a terrible penalty cost them in Game 6 and was killing penalties in place of the injured Brian Boyle, stripped the puck from Filip Chytil, broke away and snapped a backhand shot over Shesterkin late in the same frame to give the Penguins back the lead after K'Andre Miller briefly tied it at 2-2. 

The second line of Rickard Rakell, Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen didn't allow a single shot attempt through regulation, and the Rangers had no answer for Crosby's line when it was on the ice. An anxious MSG crowd was expecting the end. 

But it didn't come for the Rangers. Artemi Panarin sniped home the OT winner on the power play.

Instead, it came for the Penguins, who now face an uncertain future. 


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