NEW YORK — If Winnipeg’s swift exit from the playoffs was one that fans could feel positive (at least a little) about, then this was the diametric opposite. There is no silver lining to Pittsburgh’s 2–1 overtime loss to the Rangers on Friday night, just dark clouds as far as the eye can see.
As much as the Penguins and their coach Mike Johnston wanted to see the good, the effort and work ethic on the ice, in aftermath the disappointment of this loss will fester.
Bowing out in the first round for the third time in six years was hardly the vision for the Penguins after they triumphantly lifted the Stanley Cup in 2009. Back then, center Sidney Crosby was a sprightly 21-year-old captain, who had already won the Hart Trophy and come within two wins of a championship the prior year. Evgeni Malkin was 22 and fresh off an Art Ross Trophy-winning 113-point season. The hockey world was sure that a dynasty had been born. In Pittsburgh, no stranger to NHL royalty, that spring of ‘09 felt like an extended coronation. Today, the team and city is left to wonder about the Penguins’ abdication of their throne.
Even after the organization seemingly hit reset last spring, replacing general manager Ray Shero with Jim Rutherford and head coach Dan Bylsma with Johnston, this season has yielded no improved result. Of course, this iteration of the Penguins has its own unique set of issues. Injuries, for one, immediately come to mind. Especially down the stretch and in the five-game series against New York, the Penguins’ injured reserve list could offer at least some explanation.
“We’ve been missing some guys, really, all year,” Crosby said. “You know, to really get into your rhythm, as far as team identity, we probably struggled with that a bit … Usually you go through a span of injuries and you get through it, and you’re able to settle in. We didn’t ever really get through it.”
The blueline, in particular, was a revolving door of bodies, and by the end of March, the Penguins were without three of their top six defensemen. Four, if you count a top defenseman of the future: 21-year-old defenseman Derrick Pouliot, a former eighth overall pick who suffered an upper body injury on April 7 that kept him from playing in this series. Olli Maatta (shoulder) has been out since December. Christian Ehrhoff went down with a concussion on March 24, four days before Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang suffered one as well. Put all four of those players on the ice in good health and the series against the Rangers may have played out a little differently.
The Letang injury obviously hurt the Penguins most. Get a super skilled puck-mover like him out there to feed Crosby and Malkin, and maybe the Pens would score in more than once each game. A healthy Ehrhoff, who eats minutes and was solid on the second pair, would have alleviated the workload all around. With rookies Brian Dumoulin and Taylor Chorney thrust into the lineup, playing limited and sheltered minutes, the rest of the Penguins’ defensemen had to bear down and essentially do more with less. Rob Scuderi, who averaged 19 minutes per game during the season, logged 22 per night during the postseason. Ian Cole, whose career TOI per game is 16:07, played more than 25 minutes on Friday night.
“We faced a lot of adversity this year,” Crosby said after the game. “The work ethic of the guys in here, the situations, guys were thrown in different roles. We had a lot of new guys this year, a lot of turnover. Guys definitely did a great job considering all the circumstances, all the adversity we faced, having to get in late during the season like we did. Yeah, I think there was a certain work ethic that we showed that hopefully we can build on.”
The idea of building on these trying times is interesting, given that the foundation of the team has already been built and produced a Cup. It’s strange to think of the Penguins rebuilding, but with another postseason of disappointment, anything could be in the cards. When a team is in the business of ultra-high expectations, patience is often in short supply.
It ran out on Shero and Bylsma, architects of a championship team, after five seasons. The next question is when it runs out on Pittsburgh's stars.