NEW YORK – The ultimate reaction to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first-round exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs will come in the weeks and months following Friday's Game 5 loss to the New York Rangers.
Players will be jettisoned. Perhaps a coach. Perhaps a GM. Perhaps even a foundational star whose departure fundamentally changes the team’s identity.
But in the short term, the Penguins sat in their dressing room at Madison Square Garden – their coach, Mike Johnston, opted not to speak to them after the game – and reflected on a tightly played but brief series, and the rocky road that led there.
“We’re missing some guys. All year. It’s tough to get your rhythm as far as team identity. I’m not using that as an excuse by any means. We still found a way to get ourselves into the playoffs,” said captain Sidney Crosby.
“We lost our two best defensemen. That’s tough for team,” said Evgeni Malkin of Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff, the team’s best puck-moving defensemen, who missed the entire series due to injury.
There was talk that Malkin himself was injured, being that the star center failed to tally a point against the Rangers and was a minus-6; in total, Malkin didn’t score a goal in his last 10 games of the season. But he denied any ailment was holding him back.
"If I step on the ice, it’s healthy. I have a couple small injuries, but not big one,” he said.
Malkin said he just didn’t get it done.
"I want to say sorry to fans, to my teammates. I know I’m a leader on this team,” said Malkin.
“Each game is tough. Two-one, two-one, two-one … one-goal games. Rangers just play a little bit, one goal better.”
The Rangers won each game of the series by a 2-1 score. Game 5 was a goaltending duel between Marc-Andre Fleury and Henrik Lundqvist that needed overtime to finish, as Carl Hagelin’s goal at 10:52 ended the series.
Fleury held the Penguins in the game; and according to his teammates, he held them together in the series and the season.
“Flower made some great saves. Crossbar for each team. That’s inches,” said Crosby, who added that any lingering criticism of Fleury’s postseason performances in previous seasons doesn’t resonate in their dressing room. “He’s proven, for a long time, that that’s in the past. He doesn’t have to prove anything to us.”
Fleury was emotional after the game. “We kept it close, but at the end of the day, we still lost,” he said, quietly.
He was the best player in the series for the Penguins, and the least of their worries.
Now comes the hard part: Figuring out who stays, who goes, and what the right configuration on the ice and in management might be to return this franchise to championship contention.
Because according to Malkin, they’re not there at the moment.
“[When] people lose, we’re not a championship team. It’s not good enough,” he said.
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