Game 7 OT loss could mark end of historic era for Penguins

NEW YORK – The Pittsburgh Penguins may never be the same after blowing a 3-1 series lead and losing Game 7 of the Eastern Conference First Round to the New York Rangers in overtime at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.

“I mean, it’s a possibility,” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said after the 4-3 season-ending loss. “I think we knew that coming into the playoffs.”

Artemi Panarin‘s power-play goal 4:46 into overtime might go down as the dagger that ended one of the greatest eras in Penguins history, because it is possible Game 7 here was the last time we see Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang play together.

The core remaining from Pittsburgh’s three Stanley Cup championship teams (2009, 2016, 2017) might be broken up this offseason. Malkin, a center, and Letang, a defenseman, are unsigned for next season and pending unrestricted free agents.

Crosby is signed through the 2024-25 season and would like nothing more than for both to sign with the Penguins so they could try for one more ride through the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But that’s far from a guarantee at this point. And that’s another reason why the Penguins’ inability to hold leads in Games 5, 6 and 7 stings so much.

“It’s not up to me, but obviously I’ve had a great experience playing with these guys over the years and know what they bring,” Crosby said. “I love our group. If you look at our group this year and you look at the guys who had career years and what we had to go through to get to this point, a lot of people did not expect us to get this far , let alone get to the playoffs.

“But we had high expectations, we battled through a lot and so many guys contributed. For all those reasons, we thought we’d still be playing.”

[RELATED:Complete Rangers vs Penguins series coverage]

They’re done until next season because they couldn’t put the Rangers away. The Penguins had a 2-0 lead with less than 25 minutes to play in Game 5. They lost 5-3.

They had a 2-0 lead in the first period of Game 6. They lost 5-3.

They had a 3-2 lead in the third period Sunday and were playing an almost perfect defensive style to protect a one-goal lead in Game 7 with less than six minutes to play. They lost 4-3.

“I mean, we’re right there,” forward Jake Guentzel said. “We put ourselves in a good spot being up 3-1. It’s just disappointing to think about that we had a lead in each game and kind of gave that way. This is an amazing group. We believed the whole time and it just didn ‘t go our way. “

It’s been four years since the Penguins won a playoff series. They’re 8-19 in the playoffs since eliminating the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the 2018 first round, the last of a run of nine straight postseason series wins.

“I think if we were to group all of them, this one probably feels like we deserve better,” Crosby said.

And that’s what makes it sting beyond the blown leads and the fact that it might be the last ride for Crosby, Malkin and Letang together.

The Penguins felt in their bones they were the better than the Rangers, particularly in Game 7.

They outshot New York 45-30. They scored twice on the power play and once shorthanded.

“When you score two power-play goals and you get a shorthanded goal on top of it, more often than not you win,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “It was not the case tonight.”

The Penguins also had their No. 1 goalie back, with Tristan Jarry playing for the first time since April 14, when he sustained the lower-body injury that kept him out of the first six games of the series.

Jarry made 26 saves. He was good.

Crosby played after missing Game 6 with an upper-body injury. Rickard Rakell was in the lineup for the first time since the forward sustained an upper-body injury early in Game 1.

They were close to whole.

“I think we played the right way,” Crosby said. “You look at Game 5, we had a tough span of a few minutes. Game 6, probably even a shorter span when they get back in the game. Tonight, we were just on the wrong end of some bad bounces. We played a “great game tonight. We played some great hockey throughout the series. We did not get that next one tonight and that was probably the difference. Tonight was an example of one game, anything can happen.”

Had the Penguins found the extra goal in any of the past three games, Crosby said he felt they would have been good enough to go on a long playoff run like those teams that won the Stanley Cup and the one that lost in the Stanley Cup Final in 2008.

“The only thing we could not do was put them away when we got leads,” he said.

The only thing left to do is wonder what could have been and contemplate what might become of the Penguins as we have known them for the past 16 seasons.

“It’s something you never want to think about,” Jarry said. “They’re generational players and Pittsburgh is lucky enough to have three of them for the last 15 years. The bond they created throughout the team and throughout management is something that is irreplaceable. It’s a business, but I think if they’re able to come back, they definitely will. There is a bond between them, and I think that’s unbreakable. “


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