One thousand games into his NHL career, it wasn't just the Stanley Cups or the MVP awards, the All-Star nods or the gold medals that were on Sidney Crosby's mind. It was the people he shared them with.
The list of names he's skated alongside is long, as one would expect it to be at this point in his storied career. But, after a day of celebrating all he achieved and all he's become over his 16-year NHL journey, two pivotal characters in his hockey story stood out: Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
"We've been through so much together," Crosby said following his 1,000th game, a 3-2 win against the New York Islanders. "To be able to play here together, to basically come in together as young players trying to figure things out, go through what we've gone through, whether it be individually with injuries and being there to support one another, winning championships together, there's a lot of history there. A lot of great memories."
Both Letang and Malkin were central to the festivities Pittsburgh organized to commemorate Crosby's milestone. Along with the rest of the Penguins, they wore sweaters featuring Crosby's No. 87 for pre-game warmups and partook in his iconic ritual of undoing, and then re-tying his skates on the ice.
"Crosby is going to be the one that keeps [the goal pucks]," Letang said after scoring two goals in the win. "It's his night. It's a special one... I'm just going to keep my warmup jersey."
During a heartwarming pre-game video tribute, which wove together iconic moments from Game 1 through 999 with congratulatory thoughts from Crosby's family, his idol Steve Yzerman, and fellow players like John Tavares and Steven Stamkos, it was the words of Letang that were especially poignant.
"Three Cups, Conn Smythe, Hart Trophies, you did it all and it was a pleasure for me to be next to you for all those great moments," Letang said during the tribute. "Everybody is watching you and they can learn from you and I'm the first one to have done it for 1,000 games. ... But the most important thing is I got a friend, and you're going to be my friend forever."
When the video concluded, Letang and Malkin joined Crosby on the ice to present him with a mosaic, composed of images from each of the Penguins captain's regular-season games to date, and the iconic hand-forged silver stick awarded to NHLers upon crossing the 1,000-game threshold.
To see three of the most iconic Penguins figures from the last two decades standing there, side by side, smiling in that moment looked scripted. Pre-determined, even. The kind of scene one would expect in any great story about the game.
But there was a time in the early 2010s when concussions and their aftershocks threatened Crosby's playing future. Letang endured both concussions and a stroke, all before turning 30. Malkin simultaneously tore his ACL and MCL in his left knee.
Any one of those events could have turned celebrating a milestone for longevity into a what-if. Instead, the ending still isn't here yet. And on this night, with 1,000 games' worth of memories swirling around them, they stood together.
"To know that they were a part of it tonight, and when you come back and reflect and think about all those things, definitely hard to keep it together," Crosby said. "Didn't help when I looked over and saw Geno having a hard time, too."