PITTSBURGH — The last gasp of these Pittsburgh Penguins came late in the third period Tuesday night. Facing a one-goal deficit, facing elimination, facing the great Game 7 goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, they did what they were supposed to do. They went to the net, and they did it with desperation.
James Neal walked out in front and tried to score. Save. Kris Letang fired from the slot. Block. Paul Martin threw a backhander at the net. The puck skidded along the ice and hit a discarded stick near the knob right at the lip of the crease, and it ricocheted up, like a bad hop in baseball. Lundqvist had lost his own stick. Yet somehow, some way, he trapped the puck between his right arm and his body, and he held onto one of his 35 saves.
The Penguins suffered a 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers, and they lost in the second round after taking a 3-1 series lead, and there will be consequences. The only question is what they will be. The general manager? The coach? Part of the core?
Coach Dan Bylsma was asked afterward if he would think about the “inevitable” – a clear reference to a firing – and he could only laugh at the use of the word. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Penguins have not been back to the final. They have been eliminated by a lower-seeded team five years in a row.
“The expectations are high here, as they should be,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen, a pending unrestricted free agent who might have priced himself out of Pittsburgh. “We all know that. And it comes down to performance and results. Right now just trying to comprehend what went wrong and how this happened. We’ll see what happens in the next couple days leading up to the next couple weeks.”
But say GM Ray Shero keeps his job, and he fires Bylsma, and he hires Barry Trotz, with whom he once worked as assistant GM of the Nashville Predators. And say Trotz instills more discipline and installs a tighter defensive system. And say they replace Marc-Andre Fleury with a new goaltender, too. Will that make the difference in the playoffs? Because when you look at why the Penguins were eliminated the past two years, the reason wasn’t just discipline or defense or even goaltending ultimately.
It was also, of all things, offense.
Even though they had MVPs and scoring champions in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, even though they had Neal and Letang and Chris Kunitz, even though they were one of the NHL’s highest-scoring teams in the regular season, they could not score against the Boston Bruins last year and could not score against the Rangers in the end this year. They scored two goals as they were swept by the Bruins in the Eastern Conference final – two. They scored three goals as they lost three in a row to the Rangers – three.
Crosby will win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player in June, hands down. He ran away with the scoring title this season with 36 goals and 104 points – 17 points more than anyone else. He was one of the best possession players in the league through the first two rounds of the playoffs. When he was on the ice, the Penguins controlled 61.6 percent of the shot attempts, an outstanding amount.
Yet he had one goal and nine points in 13 playoff games – and his goal drought stretched to one goal in 18 playoff games. For the first time in his career, he did not average a point a game in the playoffs. For the first time since 2007, when he had five points in five games in his first run, he did not average more than a point a game in the playoffs. He did not record a point as the Penguins lost their last three games.
Crosby said he was healthy, so if he’s telling the truth, it wasn’t because of an injury. He doesn’t seem to go to the net as hard or as often as he did before he suffered concussion problems, but that didn’t stop him from producing in the first two rounds last year. He had Kunitz on his left, and he had Malkin on his right often in this series, so it wasn’t a lack of wingers, either.
“Obviously I would like to score more and contribute more, but it wasn’t a lack of effort or competing or anything like that,” Crosby said. “I’d love to tear it up every series, but it’s not always the case. It doesn’t make it any easier, I’ll tell you that. It’s tough losing as it is, but when you’re not able to contribute as much as you’d like, it’s even tougher.”
It’s hockey, and it’s hard, even for the best players. It’s harder when your best player isn’t scoring for whatever reason – an injury, a slump, bad luck. You have to have the depth to make up for it. The Chicago Blackhawks did last year, when Jonathan Toews had only three goals and 14 points in 23 games and they won the Cup, anyway. The Penguins didn’t when it mattered most the last two years, even though they had Malkin, Neal, Kunitz and Letang.
The Penguins carried the play much of the series against the Rangers. They had 54.3 percent of the shot attempts. They allowed 15 goals, the lowest total in a seven-game series in team history. But they were outscored over the final three games, 10-3.
This is what will haunt the Penguins: After taking that 3-1 series lead, they laid an egg on home ice in Game 5, losing 5-1. “Game 5 is a really big missed opportunity,” Niskanen said. That forced them to go to Madison Square Garden for Game 6, which they lost, 3-1. That forced them to go to Game 7, in which Lundqvist is amazing. He has won five straight Game 7s now. Fleury could have made a save on the first goal Tuesday night, and the Penguins allowed too many odd-man rushes. But they lost mainly because they couldn’t beat the King.
“We’re capable of scoring more,” Niskanen said, his voice breaking with emotion, his eyes welling. “We believe we are. But in the playoffs, things tighten up. There’s just not a ton of offense there, and their goalie’s really good. We did the right things, adjusting on trying to score dirty goals. We had people going to the net hard – tonight, at least. Games 5 and 6, we didn’t have enough of it. We let them back in the series.”
“Just disappointing,” Crosby said. “Tonight was one of our better games. We worked hard and generated some good chances. I think ultimately the two we lost heading into this one hurt us a lot and we put ourselves in this position. But tonight we worked hard, tried to generate a lot and unfortunately didn’t find a way to win.”
The Penguins have tried a lot of different things the past couple of years. Shero went big at the trade deadline last year by acquiring Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray. He got Fleury to see a sports psychologist, hired a new goalie coach and brought in veteran coach Jacques Martin to address the defensive structure entering this season. He tried to bolster the bottom six at the deadline this year with Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak.
But problems persist. Fleury is inconsistent. The defensive structure breaks down too often. The bottom six isn’t strong enough. The team isn’t tough enough. The salary-cap situation is top-heavy. When the game tightens and the top guys can’t score as they usually do, there isn’t enough offense. Someone will pay the price – maybe Shero, probably Bylsma, to start.
“It’s not that easy,” Bylsma said. “It’s a hard process. It’s a hard thing to move on and win. Again, we’re in a Game 7. It’s a 2-1 game. We win this game, we’re moving on, and we don’t. When you win a Stanley Cup, you win Game 7s and move on. Right now we had this opportunity and we didn’t [take advantage of it], and that’s difficult to deal with right now.”
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