With each passing year, people around the hockey world start discussing if the championship window has closed in Pittsburgh and if it's time to split up the core leadership group of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
And after the Penguins got eliminated in six games by the New York Islanders in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, that talk has only amplified with Malkin and Letang each having one year remaining on their contracts. But while the trio knows it ultimately isn't up to them, ideally, they would like to finish their careers here together.
They've had an amazing run over the past 15 seasons, which is tied for the most by a trio in NHL history and second-most in all of North American professional sports, and want to continue competing for Stanley Cups in the City of Champions.
"Me, Geno and Sid want to finish as Penguins," Letang said. "We truly believe in ourselves, and think we have a lot to offer."
They showed that this season, leading Pittsburgh to a first-place finish in the East Division and a 15th-consecutive playoff berth, and proving everybody wrong who questioned whether they still had elite hockey left.
It truly was a special group, and everyone in the locker room pointed to Nos. 87, 71 and 58 as the biggest reasons for the team's success. Defenseman Mike Matheson talked about how they made the rest of the players feel comfortable and inspired them all to raise their levels.
"This group in Sid, Geno and Tanger - they show up every night, they play as hard as they can, and they drive the bus," defenseman Brian Dumoulin agreed. "They're the ones that established the culture here in Pittsburgh and the winning culture that we have now. And without them, we don't have that culture."
Rejuvenated by the return of Todd Reirden, who joined Pittsburgh's staff for his second stint as an assistant coach, Letang went on to have one of his best campaigns in recent memory at 34 years old.
"As far as performance, I thought it went pretty well," Letang said of his season. "I thought I stayed pretty consistent all year. It was great to have Todd back behind the bench. I thought he gave me a lot more confidence in my game, and when things don't really go your way on different nights, it's fun to have somebody you can talk to who understands you. So I think it was great."
Video: Letang speaks to the media on clean-out day.
Letang finished tied for third in the league in scoring among all NHL defensemen with 45 points (7G-38A) and a plus-19 in 55 games, and elevated his game to another level in the postseason. Letang recorded a goal and five assists while averaging 28:42 minutes of ice time during Round 1.
"I think he means an incredible amount to this organization, to this city," Matheson said. "He is one of the most recognizable guys around the city, and it's because of the years that he's put into this team, the success that he's had. He's been such a big part of the team for so long. He brings that work ethic and passion every day to make his teammates better."
"He plays tough minutes and hard minutes," defenseman Marcus Pettersson added. "He goes out there and plays his (butt) off for us every night. So I think he's a huge leader for this group, and has been for a long time."
Right as Malkin was starting to heat up, he suffered a knee injury in March that kept him out of the lineup for 23 of the last 27 regular-season games and the first two games of the Islanders series. But the 34-year-old returned to score five points (1G-4A) in four contests despite not being fully recovered.
"Geno was dealing with a knee injury, and he fought really hard to get back into our lineup," head coach Mike 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."
And of course, Crosby was his typical consistently excellent self, finishing ninth in the league with 62 points (24G-38A) and being named Team MVP for his efforts. The captain was critical of his play in Round 1, finishing with a goal and an assist, but overall, the 33-year-old was the biggest catalyst behind the Penguins' success with a season full of milestones.
His 1,000th game on Feb. 20 was a particularly memorable one, with Crosby being brought to tears thinking about everything he has been through with Malkin and Letang - the history, the memories and the championships.
"I know that the three of us, we want to win, and we'll do whatever it takes to try to compete to do that every year," Crosby said. "I know that we've been together a long time, I've seen how much they care and their commitment, so I never doubt or question that."
And this summer, they're going to do everything in their power to be ready to take advantage of their next opportunity. Between the three of them, their combined list of achievements is absolutely staggering. But they're hungry and motivated to keep adding to the incredible legacies they've crafted here in Pittsburgh, and understand they only have so many chances left.
"I know hard Tanger, Sid and Geno work in the offseason, so they're going to put themselves in the best position to help our team win next year," Dumoulin said. "And that's their goal. And that's all of our goal, is to win."