Sidney Crosby was left wondering what went wrong for the Pittsburgh Penguins and said their championship window may be closing after they were eliminated in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
“It’s a really hard one to evaluate,” the Penguins captain said Friday after a 2-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in Game 4 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. “That’s the honest truth as far as trying to break this all down. It’s a tough one to evaluate overall.”
The Penguins, the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, were left with few answers after losing to the No. 12 seed in the best-of-5 series. Montreal advanced to the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and will face the winner of the round-robin game Saturday between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers in Toronto, the East hub city (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN1, SN360, TVAS). Pittsburgh has a 12.5 percent chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery, to be held Monday.
The Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017, lost to a team that was 24th in the NHL standings (31-31-9, .500 points percentage) when the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. No team had ever won an NHL postseason series finishing that low.
The Penguins have lost nine of their past 10 postseason games since defeating the Washington Capitals 3-1 in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Second Round on May 3, 2018. They were swept in a best-of-7 series against the New York Islanders in the first round last season.
“It’s an indication of how hard it is to win,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “You’re talking about three completely different seasons. Three completely different teams. I’m not sure that adds up.”
But Crosby, who won championships with center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang in 2009, 2016 and 2017, said they might have limited opportunities to win a fourth.
“With age, it’s a possibility,” said Crosby, who turned 33 on Friday. “But I can only speak personally. Obviously, I would’ve liked to stay a little bit healthier and play a full season.”
Crosby had 47 points (16 goals, 31 assists) in 41 games this season.
Things looked promising when he returned from core muscle surgery with a goal and three assists Jan. 14 in a 7-3 win against the Minnesota Wild. The Penguins were 18-6-4 in 28 games without him.
But after moving into first place in the Metropolitan Division with a 5-2 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 18, Pittsburgh was 3-8-0 in its final 11 regular-season games.
Sullivan said anything that happened from January to March is unrelated to this series loss. He also said nothing has shaken his confidence in Crosby, Malkin (34 years old) and Letang (33).
“I think these guys are still elite players. I believe in this core,” Sullivan said. “They’re elite hockey players, and I still think there’s elite play left in them. So that’s just what I believe. Obviously, at some point, everybody’s window closes. So you could argue that with any team in the League. But I strongly believe that this group has a lot of elite hockey.”
Crosby had three points (two goals, one assist) in the series. Malkin had an assist. Letang had no points.
On Thursday, Malkin said he wasn’t ready for this run to end. One day later, the Penguins managed 22 shots on goal and were shut out by Carey Price.
Letang said he is confident it won’t be their last chance.
“I think we still believe in the core group of this team,” Letang said. “I think we have a lot left in the tank. We’re going to keep playing hard and give everything for the Penguins. I think we have to be better. This year, we didn’t play good enough to win, but I feel comfortable with the group of guys that we have.”