Monday's NHL: Penguins, Crosby at crossroads after early exit; Kings a model for Wings

Will Graves
Associated Press

Pittsburgh — For the better part of two decades, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have served as the foundation upon which the Pittsburgh Penguins built three Stanley Cup champions.

For the better part of a year, all three understood the 2021-22 season could be their last ride together.

And for the better part of a month, Crosby did his best to block it out. He can’t anymore. Neither can anyone else. Not after a gut-wrenching playoff loss to the New York Rangers, when a 3-1 series lead ended with the Penguins being on the wrong end of the handshake line at raucous Madison Square Garden after the Rangers pulled off one staggering comeback after another.

Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) watches as the Rangers celebrate a game-winning goal by Artemi Panarin during overtime in Game 7 of the first-round playoff series on Sunday in New York.

The last was a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 7 that marked Pittsburgh’s fourth straight one-and-done during a time of year Crosby, Malkin and Letang have helped define.

“They’re all different,” said Crosby, who missed a portion of Game 5 and all of Game 6 after getting hit in the head by New York’s Jacob Trouba (Michigan). “It’s kind of hard to go through all of them. I think if we were to group all of them, I’d think this one, I probably feel like we deserved if I was to categorize all of them.”

Crosby is well aware this could have been the last time Malkin and Letang are among those wearing a Penguins sweater. Both are free agents this summer, as is forward Bryan Rust (Pontiac), whose dynamic play helped the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. All three could be too expensive to keep.

“I think we knew that coming into the playoffs,” Crosby said. “But I think you try not to really think about that. You hope that we can make a good run.”

In a way, they did. Pittsburgh led in six of seven games during the series, including two-goal advantages in both Game 5 and Game 6 and a one-goal edge with less than six minutes to go in regulation in the finale.

“It’s disappointing,” said Penguins forward Jake Guentzel, who scored eight goals during the series. “We were right there. We put ourselves in a good spot to be up 3-1.”

New York’s consistent ability to pounce on Penguin miscues helped. The last of those, Danton Heinen’s turnover and ensuing penalty that gave the Rangers a power play in overtime, set up a sequence that ultimately ended with Artemi Panarin’s winner.

In a way, the series was symbolic of a wildly uneven season. A gritty start in which role players like Evan Rodrigues filled in spectacularly while Crosby and Malkin (among others) recovered from injuries. Then a two-month stretch where they were arguably the best team in the league, followed by a limp to the finish that included three mostly listless losses to the Rangers.

It’s one of the reasons New York entered the series as the prohibitive favorite. While Crosby stressed his team couldn’t just flip a switch and get going, that’s precisely what the Penguins did in taking three of four to start the series.

And then suddenly, leads, momentum and a promising postseason vanished in the hockey equivalent of a New York minute. An offseason of potentially seismic turnover looms.

“A lot of people didn’t expect us to get this far, let alone get in the playoffs,” Crosby said. “We had high expectations. We battled through a lot. And so many guys contributed. I think for all those reasons we thought we’d still be playing.”

The possibility of Malkin and Letang returning comes down to money. Malkin turns 36 in July. Letang turned 35 a month ago. Both are still potent players.

Malkin finished with 20 goals despite missing nearly half the season while recovering from knee surgery. Letang finished fifth in the league in average ice time and dished out a career-best 58 assists while consistently playing a more disciplined style.

Fenway Sports Group – which bought the team from Ron Burkle and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux last fall – has pledged to continue spending to the salary cap. Still, keeping both franchise icons would likely require at least one of them taking a bit of a discount and Montreal is expected to make a serious bid for Letang to finish his career in his hometown.

Rust, just 30, has topped 20 goals in three straight seasons and had a productive series against the Rangers with two goals and six assists. What he commands on the open market may depend on whether teams think his output is a byproduct of playing alongside Crosby.

Kings gain postseason experience

Todd McLellan’s Los Angeles Kings gained valuable experience after making it to the playoffs for the first time since 2018.

In 2021, they were seven games under .500 but bounced back with 99 points this year with a 44-27-11 record.

(The Wings are hoping for similar success. They were eight games under .500 this year and are trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016).

That will mean nothing if the Kings are unable to make more progress next season.

“Experience is only good if you do something with it,” the third-year coach said after the Kings were eliminated Saturday night by Edmonton with a 2-0 loss in Game 7 of their Western Conference first-round series. “If you’re just going to go throw it in the closet when you go home, whether you’re old or young, it’s useless.

“So our younger players, in particular, whether you played in the series or not, you gained experience. It’s what are you going to do with it now? That’s why next year is going to be one tough year based on experience that I have. There’s a lot of growing up that some of them need to do and they can do it. And they will do it.”

The Kings had 11 players see their first action in a postseason series. They also gained valuable experience during a regular season in which 23 players missed time due to injury or COVID-19 protocols. Despite that, Los Angeles finished with 98 points during the regular season and finished third in the Pacific Division.

Los Angeles was also missing a couple of significant pieces during the Edmonton series. Forward Viktor Arvidsson suffered a herniated disc before the playoffs, while defenseman Drew Doughty had been out since March and underwent season-ending wrist surgery in April. General manager Rob Blake said during Monday’s season-ending interviews that Arvidsson will have surgery on Tuesday.

The Kings had a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series before dropping the final two games. Los Angeles couldn’t stop Edmonton superstar Connor McDavid, who had four goals and 14 points in the series. His six multipoint games marked the first time since Boston’s Rick Middleton in 1983 that someone had done that.

The postseason exit means the Kings haven’t won a playoff series since beating the New York Rangers in five games in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final to hoist their second championship in three years.

“We didn’t play bad but they played a little better,” center Phillip Danault said. “They had a little more power and they were a little more ready.”

Offseason acquisitions Arvidsson and Danault were major reasons the Kings finished with their highest points total since 102 in 2015-16. Danault, a free-agent signing, had 27 goals and 51 points centering the second line while Arvidsson, who was acquired from Nashville, had 20 goals and 49 points during the regular season.

“I think they’ve done a great job. I mean, those couldn’t have worked out any better,” Doughty said about the front office. “We’re going in the right direction. I think we’re going to be a really good team and have a chance to win some playoff series next year.”

Adrian Kempe had his breakthrough in his sixth NHL season. The Swedish forward became only the third Kings player since 2004-05 to score 35 goals and was second on the team in scoring with 54 points.

Blake said both sides put off discussing an extension during the season, but that will be a priority over the next couple months.

Anze Kopitar was also pleased with the progress his linemate made during the year.

“I think he’s obviously matured a lot. He’s a lot more comfortable being one of the guys,” Kopitar said. “He took big steps in every single position, whether it was on power play or penalty killing.”

Wholesale changes aren’t needed, but Blake does need to add depth on defense, along with a consistent left wing to pair on the first line with Kopitar and Kempe.

“I don’t think we have to make many big swings. We still have to improve on some areas. I mean just upgrade really,” Kopitar said.