May 13, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma (top left) hands a new stick to left wing Chris Kunitz (14) against the New York Rangers during the third period in game seven of the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Rangers won the game 2-1 and took the series 4 games to 3. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Penguins: Playoff Failure Might Be Just What Organization Needs

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.

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Tags: Dan Bylsma Pittsburgh Penguins Ray Shero Stanley Cup Playoffs 2014

  • lookout

    Sorry, had to repost! Seriously, we were beat by a, may I say, SUPERIOR Goal-Tender. If Fleury can make simple positional saves (Vokoun), are we having this discussion? It’s amazing when you watch the players respond to soft goals, it’s as if somebody let the air out of the balloon. We should be discussing why Fleury is still in a Penguins uniform, after 4 years of flopping around. Hate to lose Bylsma, because of a coach killer like Fleury.

    To finish, is Fleury this bad in practice too? Would make sence that they take poor shots, if they continuously score with those same shots during practice! Just Saying.

    • Matt Gajtka

      I agree, their goalie was better. But you shouldn’t need amazing goaltending every game to win. Fleury won Game 3 basically on his own, and he was plenty good enough last night to win. I just think it’s reductive to talk only about the goalies. The whole organization needs change, most notably in the depth positions.

      • Michael J. Coslo

        RIght, because on a team with th efirepower the Pens have, two goals should be no problem to overcome. But let’s talk about how no Pen had the fortitude to get in front of the net. Pretty much every shot had no rebound, unless it happened to go behind the net.

    • OVP66223

      Lookout, part of what made Lundquist look great, besides him being a good goalie, is his defense and the ineptness of the Penguins offense. How many shots did they get that were point blank shots? Very, very few. Lots of fluttering wrist shots from 40 feet with not much blocking Lundquist’s view.

      It is simple, you put Lundquist on the Pens and Fleury and the Rangers and I would argue there would be no difference in the outcome based on the play of the two teams (sans goal-keeping). The Pens fowards were outplayed and shutdown and the defensemen made just enough mistakes pressing the offense to allow easy opportunities on Fleury.

      Lundquist is the better goalie, sure, but it wasn’t he that shut down the Penguins, it was the Rangers team defense, toughness and HUSTLE. The Penguins got beat in the toughness and hustle areas and even Lundquist couldn’t have won the Pens the series.

      • Michael J. Coslo

        Bingo. While you could see the Pens chasing a puck that happened to be in front of Lundquist, no one was parking there to pick up the garbage.

        While on the other end, I often saw TWO Rangers parked in front of Fleury. I guess the Pens D-Men were trying to set up the break out of the zone.

        Who even knows how much better Lundquist was than Fleury, when the play was so inept?

    • OVP66223

      So, as I have stated elsewhere, the areas the PENS need to fix:

      1 – depth and quality of the roster. Shero has made nothing but bad decisions the past two years. Not a single trade had any positive impact (Morrow, Iginla, Stempniak, Goc, fat-defender from Anaheim or wherever, etc). The talent next to Malkin and Crosby is very mediocre.

      2 – Grit and size on the roster. This is imperative. We are SOFT, SOFT, SOFT. We have a bunch of mites with little skill and the average sized guys also have little skill. The role players on this team stink and shouldn’t be on any line at the NHL level. The roster around the stars needs gutted and retooled. Keeping Shero would be beyond stupid as he doesn’t know how to fix whats broken judging by his horrible trade record AND his poor signing of Letang to a mega-deal.

      We must get more grit, toughness and tenacity on the roster and hopefully do that by getting a little bigger at several positions. We need a few 6’2″ + guys that play big. Their puck and skating skills only need to be average to work, but even better if they have some passing or scoring skills.

      3 – New coaching staff to at least try something different and hopefully get back to fundamentals. Play good team defense FIRST and the offense with the talent of Malkin, Crosby and a few others will come via many breakouts and turnovers.

      4 – Move Letang. He will never be a top 2 line D-man and is the most overrated player on this roster. I was hoping they’d trade him last year instead of give him money, but now we’re stuck with an undersized D-man that has an average offensive game and precious little ability in his own zone…mistake prone.

      5 – Make a decision about Fleury. He wasn’t the problem this year, but if he carries a stigma now, go ahead and find a new goalie and move Fleury. Personally, I think with his sports shrink visits, he’ll be fine moving forward so long as the team in front of him starts playing some defense and limits the mistakes (when pigs fly?)

      • OVP66223

        #2 is why the Flyers and Bruins demolished us so badly and why the Rangers stuck it to us. #1 is also part of that, but #2 is the biggest reason for our playoff failures…not a big tough player on the whole roster that actually lays some hits and harasses the other teams better players.

      • Matt Gajtka

        Some really good points here, but I’d be cautious about No. 2. Looking for “grit” is what led Shero to sign Rob Scuderi to a four-year deal. These tougher players need to be able to play hockey, too. This team is old and slow enough…it needs to get faster and more skilled. Look at Chicago’s forward corps…yeah there’s some size, but all those larger guys can make plays.

        • OVP66223

          I know what you’re getting at, but my point was we have undersized forwards all over the place and still precious little skill or speed. Might as well get bigger and tougher if you can’t find the skill/speed on the cheap. Personally, I would prefer a couple of faster players and a couple of scary big players that can be mixed and matched as needed.

          We get whipped by tougher teams because we have no answer to getting mauled, hit, cross-checked and poked. The Penguins are a roster full of finesse players (trying to be kind) and many are undersized as well. Small AND finesse with not even average skill is NOT what wins playoffs.

          If we can find and afford all these new skilled and fast players you want, fine, but they are more expensive than getting a couple of big and nasty players. We need that most of all. We do need another skilled forward (or two). I am tired of the entire 4th line and the 3rd line, save for Sutter. Let those 7 or 8 players that were used on 3rd and 4th lines go or trade for a low draft pick. Move them ALL as they have little size, little speed, little grit and little skill.

          Bennett looks like he’ll never been anything useful, but maybe he plays too timid, I don’t know. We have almost no forward prospect worth a darn. Shero is failing on many fronts and has been for years. The trades are awful and the drafts are awful.

        • OVP66223

          As for Scuderi, I didn’t see him as a grit signing, but a stablizing presence signing. One that does all the little things well, never over-extends, etc. While he has some grit, to me grit is not being afraid to play the opponent tough, to lay down hits, to stick with your man no matter what tricks he tries, etc. Grit is the motivation to use the toughness you have, so a player without grit is just a statue and a player without toughness is probably trying to be a thorn in the side, but lacks the physical presence to scare anyone even if he has a nasty disposition.

      • Joe Smith

        Zuccarello and St. Louis, both 5’7″ at most. I don’t think lack of size is Pittsburgh’s problem, I think it’s lack of heart.

        • OVP66223

          I am fully on board with lack of grit/toughness/tenacity/heart, but St. Louis has SKILL, our shrimpy players have no skill, little speed and little toughness. I can live with, even welcome small IF they have some redeemable hockey qualities. Our small sized players DO NOT.

          So, get me some small guys that have speed or can puck handle or agitate and I will love them. Since we don’t have any of that in our small guys, get rid of them, get some of the above and hopefully get it in a bigger, more menacing package. Even St. Louis would be NOTHING on the Pens team. He cannot thrive if other team can check him at will and take cheap shots to the head, ribs and legs all game long…and that is what happens to Crosby and Malkin because we have a bunch of skill-less, undersized weenies on this team that cannot or will not do anything to make the other team pay for mistreatment of our skilled players.

  • Michael J. Coslo

    I understand there is this team in Scranto PA that might be able to help.

  • Michael J. Coslo

    The expression on the woman just to the right of Bylsma says it all. Not upset because the Pens just fell apart for the 5th time in 5 years, but “This is how it is, and I don’t like it”.