Mueller: Overmatched Domingue puts Penguins on the brink

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We watch sports for lots of reasons: the drama, the skill, and the inherently compelling nature of high-level competition, among others.

Perhaps more than any of those reasons, though, we watch sports for the stories. Particularly the ones that captivate us and capture the imagination, the ones that feature unlikely heroes, underdogs rising up to do the seemingly impossible.

Louis Domingue was one of those stories not even two weeks ago, when he rose from third-string obscurity to relieve an injured Casey DeSmith in the second overtime of Game 1 in the Penguins’ first-round playoff series against the Rangers.

Domingue stopped all 17 shots he faced, the Penguins eventually won in three overtimes, and their unlikely savior charmed everyone with tales of spicy pork and broccoli.

Now, with a 3-1 series lead gone and Pittsburgh staring at a do-or-die Game 7, the honeymoon is over. Domingue’s time in net should be, too. If he played like even an average NHL goalie in Game 6 – maybe even a mediocre one – the team would be moving on to await the winner of the Bruins-Hurricanes series.

Instead, Mike Sullivan’s team must try to right themselves after blowing a two-goal lead for the second straight elimination game, and will be fighting an uphill battle in a raucous Madison Square Garden, possibly without Sidney Crosby, who missed Game 6 with a concussion – excuse me, “upper body injury.”

Domingue will be healthy for Game 7. His problem is that he isn’t any good. He looked better in a 5-2 Game 2 loss than he has for most of the last four games. His awkward style led directly to the game-winning goal in Game 6; it was a shot that an ECHL goalie should have stopped. The Rangers’ second goal, though it came on a hard shot from Mika Zibanejad, should never have gotten through.

If Domingue keeps the second goal out, perhaps the Penguins never cede the lead, and Evgeni Malkin’s breakaway goal late in the second period is a backbreaker that gives them a 3-1 lead.

We’ll never know, though, because Domingue keeps making the position look as difficult as possible, even though his teammates have done an admirable job insulating him from the Rangers’ offensive attack.

Now the Penguins find themselves in the unenviable position of having to hope Tristan Jarry is healthy enough to start Game 7. He’s making progress, but there’s little doubt that Sullivan was hoping Domingue could get one more win so that Jarry could have extra time to heal, then start Game 1 of the second round.

Jarry has his own playoff meltdown in the near past, but he’s a legitimate NHL goaltender, and a high-level one when he’s at his best. If he – or even Casey DeSmith – had played this entire series, it would already be over.

There were other huge issues in Game 6, of course. Evan Rodrigues’ penalty opened the door for the Rangers to get on the board and swung the tide of play, and the fact that the officials missed an obvious boarding call on New York’s Ryan Lindgren immediately prior, and only penalized Rodrigues for retaliating compounded the issue. The Penguins also put forth 67 seconds of the worst 5-on-3 power play mankind has seen since, well, their 5-on-3 power play at the outset of Game 5. Embarrassing doesn’t begin to describe that performance.

Still, the biggest reason that the Penguins are now joining the Rangers on the brink despite clearly being the better 5-on-5 team throughout the series is Domingue. At no time in the last two games has he done what any successful goalie does for a team in the playoffs, and that’s steal a game with a handful of timely saves.

He’s done the opposite, in fact. The Game 6 winner is the softest goal I’ve seen a Penguins goalie allow in the playoffs since Florida’s Tom Fitzgerald beat Tom Barrasso in Game 7 of the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals. For Barrasso, it was an awful fluke. For Domingue, it’s more and more apparent that such gaffes are closer to business as usual.

Unless the Penguins can dig deep and come out with a victory in Madison Square Garden, it’s likely that Game 6 was the last home game for the Crosby-Malkin-Letang Pens.

If Louis Domingue is in net for Game 7, that era will officially end on May 15, 2022.

This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Mueller: Overmatched Domingue puts Penguins on the brink