You hear it all the time in sports: anything can happen.
That idea is likely what sustained many Pittsburgh Penguins followers this season, especially considering the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference. My thinking was that if the Pens got the right draw in the Stanley Cup playoffs, they could easily find themselves in another Stanley Cup final with the high-end talent they possess.
Well, the Penguins got the right draw, facing a not-quite-ready Columbus team in the first round and avoiding their nemesis Flyers in the second. They still didn’t take advantage.
That makes five years in a row that Pittsburgh has fallen short of the final series, losing to a lower-seeded team each time.
If you look at each playoff loss in a vacuum, they all can be explained or excused. 2010? Team was tired after back-to-back long postseason runs. 2011? No Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. 2012? Marc-Andre Fleury meltdown. 2013? Maybe the Bruins psyched them out, although I’m still mystified by that one.
The prime reason the Penguins are going home unsatisfied this year is goaltending, but not in the way we might’ve thought entering the playoffs. New York’s Henrik Lundqvist was just that good, especially over the final three games of the series when he denied 102 of 105 Pittsburgh shots.
At the same time, you have to overcome great goaltending if you want to go all the way. The Penguins were oh-so-close to doing that in the latter moments of Game 7, but that doesn’t make up for all the shots they passed on earlier in the series while trying to find the perfect play in an imperfect sport.
When it came down to finishing, Pittsburgh looked tight. Give Lundqvist credit, but don’t make it all about him. Just like Boston’s Tuukka Rask was victimized by the Blackhawks in last year’s Cup final, I wouldn’t be surprised to see either the Bruins or Canadiens puncture Lundqvist enough to eliminate the Rangers.
I’ve seen some of my hockey-writing brethren suggest that the Penguins were simply done in by the randomness of the playoffs, especially when you consider their outstanding possession numbers in the postseason. I certainly buy into the concepts of luck and the variability of small-sample sizes, but these are human beings we’re talking about here, and something’s not right when the playoff lights turn on.
Did it make empirical sense that Dan Bylsma was able to take a team stagnating under Michel Therrien in 2009 and ride them all the way to the title? Not entirely, although adding Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin to the mix helped.
If the Penguins had stood pat with Therrien, they might’ve missed the playoffs in ’09, let alone win a Cup. There are only a few years to go before Crosby and Malkin start to decline significantly, so the time for change is now.
As I wrote Tuesday, I’d consider getting a new man in the general manager’s seat in addition to looking for a new coaching staff. Getting a new set of eyes on this roster is imperative at this point, as the old plan isn’t working when the stakes are highest, bad luck or not.
In an alternate universe with different puck bounces, perhaps the Penguins have won multiple titles with this core group. As it stands, they’ve had too many consecutive sour springs to simply roll the same dice again in 2015.
If the Penguins had found a way to convert a 3-1 series lead into an Eastern Conference final berth, they might’ve been able to justify keeping the status quo. When we look back at the 2014 playoffs, I think we’ll be grateful the organization received this opportunity to reboot.