Making sense of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ postseason mess


by Matt Gajtka

On the surface, it seems illogical.

Not that the Philadelphia Flyers would defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Any rational NHL follower could’ve told you that the fifth-seeded Flyers were fully capable of ousting the No. 4 Penguins, as primarily evidenced by Philly’s 4-2 record in the season series between the longtime rivals.

What was illogical was how poorly, how disheveled, how different the Penguins looked in allowing 30 goals in a six-game defeat at the hands of the Black and Orange, completed with a 5-1 loss in Sunday’s Game 6. Yes, the Pens had inspired belief in their ability to rebound from a prolonged kick in the groin that the Flyers administered in the first three games, but they only got halfway to a historic rally before Philadelphia turned the lights out in convincing fashion.

So we are left with countless questions as a drama-filled but ultimately promising season runs into a wall well before those wonderfully nerve-wracking days of early June. Why did it end like this?

Perhaps an answer lies in the way the Pens ended their regular season. In his end-of-season press availability Tuesday afternoon, general manager Ray Shero alluded to something going wrong over the last 11 games. Looking back, he may be on to something.

After the Flyers (yes, them again) ended the Penguins’ 11-game winning streak with a 3-2 overtime win March 18, Pittsburgh went 7-4-0, but the record is rather insignificant as they had already ensured a playoff berth by then. Rather, the 43 goals the Pens allowed over the final 11 – nearly four per game against – should’ve alerted all involved that the team wasn’t rounding into form like it should.

The four losses during the closing stretch were especially glaring, as the Pens allowed eight goals in Ottawa, surrendered 10 in back-to-back losses to the Islanders and – in some ominous foreshadowing – squandered a 2-0 lead at home in an eventual 6-4 loss to Philadelphia. Shero, and the coaching staff by extension, had to realize their defensive game was off kilter, but they simply couldn’t fix it.

What to make of this remarkable springtime fade into the offseason? Did Sidney Crosby’s return from his second (or third) concussion in less than a year inflate the Penguins’ confidence to an unhealthy degree? It’s difficult to dispute that the Black and Gold’s execution and vigilance with the puck waned, even in the playoffs when intensity naturally rises.

As Shero also said Tuesday, it’s his job to figure out what spoiled the 2011-12 edition of the Penguins. The combined $9 million annually owed to defensemen Paul Martin and Zybnek Michalek has come under scrutiny, as has the long-term viability of the oft-referenced “three-center model” anchored by Crosby, 2012 Art Ross Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin and the blossoming Jordan Staal. How Shero will decide to allocate co-owner Ron Burkle’s resources in the future is a question clouded by the upcoming NHL collective bargaining agreement negotiations.

The cornerstone position of 27-year-old goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury will also be discussed, and deservedly so after he melted down in mystifying fashion against the Flyers. It was a spot in which he had excelled countless times before, and his regular-season play over the past two seasons has been superb, but allowing 48 goals in six games under the Stanley Cup microscope will be a difficult-to-cover blemish.

In summation, every aspect of how the Penguins do business will come under inspection this spring and summer. After back-to-back runs to the Stanley Cup Final, culminating in a climb to the mountaintop in 2009, Pittsburgh has been sent home by an underdog in three straight postseasons.

Yes, Montreal barely squeezed by in 2010’s second round and Tampa’s seven-game victory in last year’s first round was partly explained by the absence of the injured Crosby and Malkin. But after this abject collapse, Shero and company need to dig deep to discover why this team has underachieved since the ’09 Cup win.

Perhaps the Flyers can provide a guideline. After regular-season success but a lack of hardware with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in town, Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren shipped both “franchise players” off in trades last summer, effectively handing the keys over to Claude Giroux and a bevy of talented youngsters. Certainly the restructuring has paid off so far, but that’s no guarantee a similar shuffle will work on the other side of Pennsylvania.

In the end, Shero has proven trustworthy in ushering an impressive young core of talent into prominence as one of the premier clubs in recent NHL vintage. Improbably, following the second-best regular-season point total in franchise history, he faces the most pivotal offseason of his five-year tenure.