Immediately after the Penguins’ season-ending 4-3 overtime loss at New York on Sunday, Jake Guentzel paid tribute: “I thought we had something special here.”
Guentzel did: He scored eight goals against the Rangers, the first time that’s happened in a playoff series since 2009.
The Penguins used to: They were legit contenders from 2008-18, winning Stanley Cups in 2009, ’16 and ’17.
But now that’s all over, and decisively. Memo to Fenway Sports Group: Don’t let yourselves be talked into “one more run” for this group. Move in a different direction.
That’s not insulting or damning. It’s fact. The Penguins haven’t won a playoff series since ’18. They’ve exited in the first round on four straight occasions.
They have a ton of excuses to use, if they choose, for losing to New York: High hits by the Rangers knocked Sidney Crosby and Rickard Rakell out of the series for varying periods. Starting goalie Tristan Jarry (broken foot) wasn’t available before Game 7. Sunday’s complaint du jour concerned Marcus Pettersson being stripped of his helmet and having to go to the bench as per the rules.
Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan: “I think (that rule) stinks.”
It sure does. But tell John Marino not to turn the puck over. (That sequence of play led to Mika Zibanejad’s tying goal for New York with 5:45 left.)
The Rangers are a very good team. Don’t leave that out of the equation.
But the Penguins’ problems were mostly of their own making.
For the Penguins, the entire series was a nonstop blown lead.
• They blew one-goal leads twice Sunday, including on Zibanejad’s tally late in regulation.
• They blew a 2-0 lead in Game 6, doing so in 76 seconds.
• They blew a 2-0 lead in Game 5. The Rangers led within 162 seconds.
• They blew a 4-1 lead in Game 3 but won anyway, 7-4. (After the Penguins took a 5-4 lead with nine minutes left, they trapped and worked down low in New York’s end. That’s the last time the Penguins played like that in the entire series despite situations that demanded it, not least Sunday’s third period.)
It all adds up to blowing a 3-1 series lead and being eliminated.
That hardly equates to these Penguins being a “special” team, especially not in the context of what’s happened since the last Cup in ’17.
A special team doesn’t collapse like that. A team with the winning experience of the Penguins shouldn’t collapse like that.
But the Penguins aren’t operating off the experience of ’16 and ’17 anymore. They’re operating off the experience of what’s happened since. That’s their current frame of reference.
That’s why it’s time for major change.
This space will soon explore what should be done. But it won’t be a tank-for-better-draft-picks kind of rebuild. That’s not Fenway Sports Group’s method. (BTW, the ownership change came at a perfect time. FSG is beholden to none. Sentiment likely won’t figure.)
Here’s betting FSG first brings in elite hockey management, then vigorously explores free agency. The process won’t take long if it’s done right.
Losing this series was ugly.
Blown leads. Mangled 5-on-3 power plays. An inability to win crucial draws. A power play that relied on its second unit for half its six goals. A minor-league goaltender who did his best; it wasn’t much. Brian Dumoulin’s injury led to the pairing of Kris Letang and Mike Matheson, which was ineffective. Dumb plays. Dumb penalties.
Brock McGinn is the poster child for dumb plays and dumb penalties. He had the puck. He was the last man. He turned it over. He took a holding penalty. All that in Sunday’s overtime. New York’s Artemi Panarin netted the game-winner on the power play.
Too bad McGinn signed a four-year contract for $11 million before the season. That sequence should earn him a one-way ticket to Palookaville. A bottom-six should never be so stupid.
But why was McGinn the last man back in overtime? Why were both defensemen lower?
When he played, Crosby was great. He issued a reminder that he’s still one of hockey’s best five players. Guentzel was a juggernaut. He’s not a Crosby creation. He’s damn close to being an equal partner.
But past that, performance was mostly meh. You know your team is in trouble when it starts counting on Danton Heinen.
Maybe the Penguins “probably deserved better,” as Crosby said. If that’s true, it’s only the slightest of upgrades over what happened in the prior three playoffs.
Sunday night was truly the end of an era. Unless it’s not.
Then it’s the beginning of an error.
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