BUFFALO, N.Y. -- They have been teammates for more than a decade.
They have won Stanley Cups together. They have absorbed agonizing defeats together.
They have celebrated together, and suffered together.
And, in the process, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have aged together.
To the point that they're now approaching their mid-30s.
Malkin is 33, Crosby and Letang, 32.
With the three most important members of the Penguins' core -- Crosby and Malkin are world-class centers, Letang the Norris Trophy-caliber cornerstone of their defense -- having reached this stage of their careers, it's easy to understand why the team's window for winning championships appears to be closing.
That does not necessarily mean that it has slammed shut, however. Or, Mike Sullivan contends, that it will anytime soon.
"When you look at the core we have, they're an experienced group," Sullivan said. "They're older, but they're not old. I think there's a big difference.
"These guys take care of themselves. They're physically fit. They're as driven a core as I've ever been around, and I know they want to win. They're certainly not satisfied, by any stretch.
"They're a hungry group, and I believe in the core we have. I think they're capable of great things, of leading us to become a team that can contend for a Stanley Cup. That's what our expectation is."
The Penguins won Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017 (the latter despite being without Letang for the entire postseason because of injury), but didn't qualify for the playoffs this spring until the waning hours of the regular season.
And they didn't stick around for nearly as long as it took them to get there; the New York Islanders jettisoned them in four games, the first time the Penguins were on the wrong side of a sweep since Boston hustled them out of the Eastern Conference final in 2013.
All of that, coupled with the advancing age of the most key figures on their roster, might justify tempering the Penguins' expectations for 2019-20. To suggest that simply getting into the playoffs -- not necessarily winning four rounds there -- will be a realistic objective for this team.
Pragmatic? Perhaps. But that's certainly not the approach Sullivan will be taking.
"I don't lower (expectations) at all," he said. "I'm as excited about the group that we have as I've always been. I believe we're capable of great things. But once again, we've got to go out and earn it. We've got to come together as a team, and go out and earn it every day.
"That's just the nature of the business we're in. There are a lot of good teams in the league. I think we have the ability to be a very good team, and we're going to take each day as it comes and try to become the best team we can be."
The Penguins didn't reach that level consistently for much of last season, and some players did not seem to be as driven as the Penguins were during their championship drives a few years earlier. Sullivan, though, is adamant that any concerns about the group's intangibles are misplaced.
"I don't believe that they've lost their fire," he said. "My experience, being up close with these guys and working with them every day, I can't help but admire how driven they are and how hungry they are to be the best at what they do. I know that they're driven to win championships.
"Sometimes, when you don't live up to your own personal expectations, as an individual or as a group, as we did last year, it makes you that much hungrier to want to go out and contend again. I know we have a hungry group."
Even though it's a team whose most important members now are closer to retirement than they are to the days when they began to grow into the roles they now hold.
Together, of course.
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