PITTSBURGH — This is why Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang stayed in Pittsburgh. And why the Penguins wanted them back, Sidney Crosby most of all.
Yes, they’re well into their 30s. Yes, they have far fewer games in front of them than behind them. Yet when they’re healthy and they’re right, they remain potent playmakers on a team that believes its Stanley Cup window remains wide open.
The proof arrived during a dazzling if familiar sequence late in the second period of Pittsburgh’s 6-2 season-opening victory over Arizona on Thursday night.
Malkin won a faceoff in the Coyotes’ zone and dropped the puck to Letang at the point. Letang then fed Malkin along the goal line. Malkin passed to Crosby, whose shot on net was turned away.
No matter, the puck made its way to Malkin’s stick and he jammed it home, the exclamation point on a night that was both cathartic and a reminder of how much life the Penguins’ longtime core insists they have in their 30-something-year-old legs.
The longtime franchise cornerstones combined for two goals and four assists as they joined former New York Yankee stars Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada as the longest-tenured trio of teammates in major North American professional sports history.
Crosby began his 18th season by scoring his 518th career goal 1:22 into the first period, part of an early three-goal deluge in which the Penguins quickly seized control. Letang also had two assists while Malkin looked dominant at times now well over a year removed from knee surgery that limited his effectiveness at times last spring.
“Geno had Geno’s best game tonight, I thought,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said of Malkin. “He had the puck all night long.”
Jake Guentzel, Jason Zucker, Bryan Rust and Kasperi Kapanen also scored for Pittsburgh. Tristan Jarry, who was limited to just one appearance during the Penguins’ first-round playoff loss to the New York Rangers last spring, made 26 saves.
Nick Ritchie scored twice for the rebuilding Coyotes. Karel Vejmelka improved as the game wore on to stop 47 shots.
“The start we had, that’s what hurt us,” Arizona coach Andre Tourigny said. “We weren’t mentally engaged enough. We got better during the game, never quit, came back and worked hard. But (we) need to find a way to get out of the gate with more urgency mentally.”
Pittsburgh’s pregame ceremony was cathartic for the sellout crowd following a few tense days in early summer in which Letang and Malkin’s futures with the club were both unclear as free agency loomed. Letang ultimately opted to stick around on a six-year deal and Malkin followed suit shortly thereafter by agreeing to a four-year pact just hours before hitting the open market.
The signings sent a very clear message that new owners Fenway Sports Group – which purchased the club from Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle last fall – believes Pittsburgh remains a legitimate Stanley Cup threat.
It will take months if not years to know whether it was the right move, but the very early returns were promising.
Crosby needed all of 82 seconds to give the Penguins the lead, taking a pretty cross-ice backhand feed from Guentzel then ripping a shot over Vejmelka’s glove. It marked the first time in Crosby’s career he’s scored Pittsburgh’s first goal of the season.
“Took me a while (to do that),” Crosby said. “I don’t know. It’s nice to get a start like that and obviously get a win.”
Zucker, who dealt with various injuries last season, made it 2-0 less than 3 minutes later with by firing a one-timer from just above the right circle. Guentzel pushed the lead to three 5:12 into the first by flipping a shot into an empty net on the power play.
Tourigny believes his team is in a better place than it was a year ago, when the Coyotes finished with the NHL’s worst record. Maybe, but the Coyotes are likely facing another difficult year that includes playing 20 of their first 24 games on the road.
Arizona didn’t win a game during the preseason and looked overmatched for the first 25 minutes or so before Ritchie’s two power-play goals briefly gave the Penguins a scare.
“We fought pretty hard the last two periods,” Ritchie said. “It was definitely better. We obviously have some work to do.”
NOTES: Arizona rookie F Dylan Guenther, the club’s 2021 first-round pick, was a healthy scratch after making the team as a 19-year-old. … Pittsburgh went 2 for 6 on the power play. The Coyotes were 2 for 5 with the man advantage.
Coyotes: Continue a season-opening six-game trip in Boston on Saturday.
Penguins: Welcome Tampa Bay on Saturday night.