By Brian Cazeneuve
Let’s keep this in perspective. The tragedy surrounding the Eastern Conference semifinal between the Rangers and the Penguins had little to do with the series. It was not about Sidney Crosby’s legacy, or Dan Bylsma’s job (though we'll discuss that topic later).
New York was fatigued, slow and seemingly overwhelmed during the first four games. The team needed to rally around someone or something. The death of Martin St. Louis’ mother after Game 4 provided that spark, or at least helped to put matters in perspective. St. Louis returned from her funeral physically and emotionally drained, but he didn’t miss a game. If the 38-year old was determined not to find excuses, couldn’t everyone else in the Rangers' dressing room mobilize around him to try and win the series?
It turned out to be the emotional lift that shifted the focus away from how badly and listlessly New York was playing.
Now, after the Rangers' 2-1 victory in Game 7, they need to keep riding that high. And where on earth does Pittsburgh go from here, after five straight seasons of playoff disappointments despite having two of the world’s premier players?
Rangers-Penguins Game 7 recap | Box score
First, New York. The Rangers now get something they can really use: a rest. From the back end of the first round through the start of the second, they became the first team in 25 years to play five playoff games in the span of seven days. Now that they’ve finished their second straight seven-game tilt, they will be grateful for at least two days off and possibly more depending on when the NHL starts the next round. High-minute players such as defensemen Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh will be able to recover a bit.
New York's players will also have the advantage of seeing what their next opponent, either the Bruins or the Canadiens, does to win its own seventh game. Perhaps most importantly, star forward Rick Nash will have a chance to hit the reset button. He leads the playoffs in shots on goal, but the nine-time 25-goal scorer has not hit the back of the net in 14 games, and he has heard the call of the boo birds a lot lately at Madison Square Garden.
Henrik Lundqvist might not want a day off. He has long been acknowledged as one of game’s top goalies, and now he gets another crack at the Cup, going back to the conference finals in search of his first championship. Nobody should want to face him in a deciding game.
The save percentage for Lundqvist in Game 7s was .963 even before he stopped 35 of the Penguins' 36 shots. Pittsburgh outshot New York in each period of Game 7: 10-7, 13-6 and 13-7. There aren’t many goalies in the league who can steal games. Boston’s Tuukka Rask and the Kings' Jonathan Quick are two of them, but nobody is playing better than Lundqvist right now. How do you beat him? Do you knock him around? The Flyers and the Penguins tried that. Do you put traffic in front of him? That’s the mantra for every team. None of it seems to work.
There was a remarkable sequence in the third period on Tuesday night when Lundqvist turned back three shots at the doorstep and had Evgeni Malkin jabbing at him and pushing him into the net. At one point, he knocked a knuckleball shot away with his mask. (And yes, soccer fans, when the puck flutters, he does that deliberately. He even practices it.)
But while the Rangers bonded as a team, the Penguins further revealed themselves to be the sum of poorly connected parts. Bylsma likes to take his time answering questions in press conferences. Surely he knows what looms. “ Our ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup,” he said after the game. “We haven’t done that for five seasons ... I haven’t contemplated what that price is going to be.”
Bylsma’s job was in jeopardy after the Bruins swept Pittsburgh last spring, but he was retained. This year, he guided the U.S. men's Olympic team into the semifinals in Sochi, breezing through the first four games. Then Team USA failed to record a goal in two flat losses to Canada and Finland. Bylsma is not one to yell and scream, and there was a telling scene on the bench during the series when he and Crosby exchanged words before the coach patted himself on the chest, a gesture most observers took to indicate that he was saying, “my bad.”
Michael Jordan was a superstar, but he still answered to Phil Jackson because he respected him. Joe Torre held sway with Derek Jeter. Bill Belichick can still do it with Tom Brady. If there isn’t an available coach out there who has the clout to do that with Crosby – Mike Babcock and Joel Quenneville are spoken for – the Penguins need someone who can develop that sort of relationship with Sid the Kid over time, because the captain is still just 26, albeit a somewhat crabby 26.
Crosby has the best backhand in the game, but he whiffed on a rebound – and an open net – midway though the first period. Later in the same frame, he took a lead pass on his backhand and appeared to have New York defenseman Marc Staal beaten for a semi-breakaway. Then as Crosby cut quickly to his forehand, losing Staal’s check in the process, he let the puck slide off his stick. It has become a familiar sight in the postseason to see Crosby shaking his head, staring at the ice and moping on his way back to the bench after a failed scoring attempt.
Take a random shift in the second period, when Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman sealed off a puck-carrying Evgeni Malkin along the boards. Crosby was circling to Malkin's right. Then he circled again, turning his back to the play in frustration, allowing the Rangers to leave him and Malkin behind as they started an odd-man rush in the other direction.
Does Pittsburgh need a new goaltender? Maybe, but that isn’t the only problem the team must fix. Marc-Andre Fleury has been an enigma since he helped the Penguins win the Cup in seven games agains the Red Wings. That championship feels as if it was 20 years ago. In reality, it was only 2009.
On New York’s winning goal in Game 7, Fleury was spread-eagled to stop a shot that never came from his right just as St. Louis was passing the puck to his left. As Brad Richards shot into an open net, Fleury was flopping to his belly in response. When he struggles, Fleury overreacts to plays as he did on that goal. Yet on closer inspection, the Penguins also had four players swimming after the puck. They don’t really have a system in place for stopping other teams. When you have a Crosby or a Malkin on your team, you don’t want to impede creativity by imposing a lot of rules. Maybe Pittsburgh doesn't need to trap, but it needs to be able to neutralize opponents at key moments. Whoever is coaching the Penguins next season will need the players to buy into more structure than they might like.
Penguins GM Ray Shero has not stood still at recent trade deadlines. He brought in James Neal in 2011. He got Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen, Douglas Murray and Brenden Morrow in '13, and Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak this year. Shero has a good relationship with Bylsma and stood beside him during a tough time a year ago. If he needs a reminder of what he must do next, he need only turn on his television and watch the Rangers in the next round.