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Inside Scoop: Final Virtual Media Availability of the 2020.21 Season

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Here are the biggest takeaways from the Penguins' final virtual media availability of the 2020-21 season.

INJURY UPDATES

Head coach Mike Sullivan provided updates on what Evgeni Malkin and Casey DeSmith were dealing with.

Malkin returned to play the last four games of the regular season after missing 23 contests with a lower-body injury, but sat out the final 8:48 of the third period in the finale for precautionary reasons after thinking he tweaked something in a collision. He missed Games 1 and 2 against the Islanders before debuting in Game 3.

"Geno was dealing with a knee injury, and he fought really hard to get back into our lineup," Sullivan said. "He was not 100%. I think I'm probably stating the obvious when I say that. But he fought really hard to get back in the lineup to try to help us win. He's continuing to be evaluated right now."

DeSmith missed the last three games of the regular season, but was expected to be ready for the playoffs. Unfortunately, the netminder re-aggravated his injury at practice two days before Game 1 and was unable to dress for the series. That meant Maxime Lagace served as Tristan Jarry's backup.

"Casey was dealing with a soft tissue groin injury, which is not an easy injury from a goaltending standpoint," Sullivan said. "So that's why he was unavailable for the playoffs to the point where we were when we got eliminated."

PENS TALK EMOTIONS FOLLOWING ELIMINATION

There was definitely a special feeling around this group that hasn't always been there in years past, which makes a difficult loss even harder to handle.

As winger Bryan Rust said, it didn't matter what was thrown their way, whether it was the injuries or COVID-19 protocols - they tackled it and came together to become unbelievably close while having success on the ice, finishing the regular season first place in the East Division.

"I really thought this year, we had a great chance," defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. "Not every year you can say that you have a chance for a Stanley Cup. You obviously want to believe that at the beginning of the season, but I thought we had a really good group and we showed throughout the season that we had a chance."

They certainly had plenty of reasons to think they'd make a deep run, but as Sullivan and his players always say, there is such a fine line between winning and losing in this league - and this series was an incredibly hard lesson in that. Defenseman Kris Letang used the phrase at least four times when discussing what went wrong against the Islanders that kept them from advancing past Round 1 for a third straight year.

"I think we carried the play most of most of the series, but like we've said in the past, it's a fine line," Letang said. "We weren't able to get that extra goal or able to deny them a tying goal. I thought we played really well as a team. At the end of the day, I thought we had a great team, a great core. I still strongly believe in this core of players that we can do great things."

The Penguins feel like they deserved better, but as forward Jared McCann said, dwelling on the what if's can be a slippery slope and lead them down a dark path. At this point, all they can do is - to pull out another oft-used phrase - control the controllables heading into the summer.

"It's sad that it's over, it's tough," Dumoulin said. "But you want to try to get better this offseason and come back and give ourselves a better chance next year. We need to have a good regular season to put ourselves in a spot to compete for the Stanley Cup next year, and that's our goal."

A SPECIAL GROUP

The group's chemistry was one of the biggest takeaways of the season from the players. 

"Everyone got along," Dumoulin said. "We didn't have much drama within the team. It was just a great group and it was fun to be a part of, and sad that it came to an end."

Winger Kasperi Kapanen seemed to get a little emotional when talking about how close the team was, saying they made him feel welcome right away after he was acquired from Toronto in the offseason.

"It sucks right now, but I'm very grateful for the way the guys made me feel at home and made me feel part of this team, and I appreciate that," he said. "I've never felt this comfortable, ever, with a certain group of guys. I'm just very lucky to be here and play with these guys right now."

When discussing the composition of the team, both Letang and winger Brandon Tanev pointed veteran forward Jeff Carter's arrival at the trade deadline as a big boost, saying he was a perfect fit both on the ice with 13 goals in 20 games (regular and postseason combined), and off the ice with his leadership as a two-time Stanley Cup champion. 

"The addition of Carter was unbelievable," Letang said. "It gave us so much depth at the center position, and obviously his scoring ability was unreal."

But as Rust said, every time a team doesn't reach its ultimate goal, management will determine what changes - if any - need to be made in order to help the team reach its potential. And there is already going to be at least one notable departure from this current roster with the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft set for July 21.

"Now that we're in the offseason, that's kind of the next thing on the schedule," Matheson said. "I think that is one of the toughest parts about going into this offseason, because we felt like we did have a great group and we had the ability to make a strong run in the playoffs. I think we played well. I think five out of the six games, we outplayed them for large stretches of those games. And so to be sitting here not playing is really tough to digest.

"But I think that's also what makes change that could possibly happen, whether it's through the Expansion Draft or through other means, tough - because we felt like this was a great group that could've done a lot of damage." 

STICK TAPS TO THE SUPPORT (FROM THE CROWD AND THE STAFF)

It was an interesting year, to say the least, and one we're all going to look back on as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

There obviously hasn't been a ton of time to reflect, but another one of the biggest takeaways from the players is how appreciative they are for the crowd support after playing in empty buildings for far too long.

"The season isn't the same when you're not playing with fans," Rust said. "Things seem to go quiet and it's not quite the same. And then when fans get back in the building, you see their energy and their passion, how excited they are to be there and how they help our team win games and give our team momentum. The fans are awesome. I think for me personally, obviously I don't really know it anywhere else, but these fans are the best in the league and they've been unbelievable."

The players were also incredibly grateful to the organization for allowing them to complete a successful season in the midst of a pandemic.

"Everyone involved here with the Pittsburgh Penguins did a great job with handling the pandemic and making things easy for us as players," Tanev said. "They did a great job throughout the season of informing us and making things easy for us and allowing us just to go on the ice and play. So we're really thankful for that."

McCann used the daily COVID-19 testing as an example of something the support staff made into an easy process for them.

"It's crazy, we walked in every single morning and they had everything ready for us every single day," McCann said. "So you're really thankful for that. They made it a lot easier on the players, for sure. You got to give (the support staff) credit, they were asked to do a lot this year."

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