Tim Benz: Penguins must reverse recent trend of elimination-game failure to stay alive

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May 26—Ever since the New York Islanders put the Pittsburgh Penguins on the brink of first-round elimination by winning Monday's Game 5 in double overtime, you have heard a lot of talk from the Penguins about maintaining flickering faith based on their past playoff experiences.

"Our players are well aware of the circumstance that we are in. We've been in this in the past. And we've found a way to have success," said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan Tuesday.

True. For Sullivan and a handful of his players, they remember being down 3-2 in a best-of-seven playoff series and coming back to win.

That occurred in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final when — like this year — the Penguins lost Game 5 at home.

Then they went to Tampa Bay and beat the Lightning 5-2. Then they won Game 7 at PPG Paints Arena 2-1 before washing out the San Jose Sharks in six games to win the Stanley Cup.

In 2017, much of that same group stared down a one-game elimination situation by beating the Washingtin Capitals in the second-round, then the Ottawa Senators in double overtime of a Game 7 after they had lost Game 6 of that Eastern Conference Final in Canada.

"Those guys in the room are going to have to lead by example," said winger Bryan Rust, who had three goals during those two wins over the Lightning. "They are going to have to come out and work hard, play hard and try to lead this team. A lot of those guys are leaders of this team and everyone else is going to have to follow suit."

That's great. But, for the majority of Penguins who will be on the ice Wednesday, they know a lot more about elimination-game disappointment in black and gold. And they know nothing of success in those situations.

That's because each of the last three times they've faced elimination games they have lost.

—After losing Game 5 against the Capitals 6-3 on the road in the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Penguins dropped a 2-1 overtime decision to the Caps at home in their first chance to be bounced in that series.

—Following three straight defeats to open their first-round series in 2019 versus the Islanders, the Pens allowed themselves to be swept with a meek 3-1 loss in Game 4.

—In a best-of-five 2020 qualifying-round contest, the Penguins split the first two games of "bubble hockey" against the Montreal Canadiens before losing Game 3, 4-3. Then the upset-minded Canadiens dropped the Penguins 2-0 in their first shot to advance.

So that's three straight elimination-game defeats with two goals in more than nine periods of hockey.

Turn down the Bee Gees and turn up Billy Currington. Because for the Penguins in recent years it's been a lot more about "Let Me Down Easy" and a lot less about "Staying Alive."

"We can't sit around and feel like we deserve more than we got and just pack it in," said defenseman Mike Matheson following Tuesday's practice. "No matter what order it comes in, it's the first team that wins four games. And we still have an opportunity to do that."

The Penguins have to say stuff like that. But there are two major differences between Sullivan's first two Penguins teams that won Cups and the four most recent editions.

The 2016 and 2017 teams could score enough goals to win in the playoffs — 3.06 per game over those two years. Starting with those two losses to the Caps to close out 2018, the Pens are only averaging 2.07 goals per playoff contest since then.

The Stanley Cup championship teams had multiple quality options at goaltender. Matt Murray, Marc-Andre Fleury and even Jeff Zatkoff won playoff games en route to those titles.

These Penguins have a struggling Tristan Jarry and that's it. Backup Casey DeSmith is injured. Third-stringer Maxime Lagace has no playoff experience and just two NHL starts since 2018.

Penguins fans probably want to rely on history as a reason for optimism as opposed to looking for reasons why this year's team will prevail.

Well, I guess I can't blame them. History books are easier to read than tea leaves. But don't squint too hard. Because the ugly recent history is more readily forgotten than highlighted championship glory.

And it is a lot less appealing.


Brian Metzer of the Penguins Radio Network joins me to preview Game 6 against the Islanders. We talk about the goaltending disparity in the series between Tristan Jarry and Ilya Sorokin, Penguins goal-scoring deficiencies, the upcoming expansion draft and hope for the Penguins to bounce back from the Game 5 heartbreaker.

Listen: Tim Benz and Brian Metzer discuss the Penguins-Islanders series and preview Game 6

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.