Now that the dust has settled, as we ride into the sunset, now that the party is over, as we turn out the lights…and barring any other cliches I could deliver to start an article, I can now recapitulate the Pittsburgh Penguins’ loss to the Washington Capitals in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. I could suffer through it all game by game, and point out all the goals and gaffes, penalties and power plays, hits and high stickings, but there just isn’t a point for such now. So let me highlight and (mostly) lowlight what has brought us to gather here today; as we lick our wounds, grieve our loss, take our lumps, own our stuff…
As with any loss in any big game, it’s never just one, or even two blunders that has things go awry. Sure, some are glaring…like a ground ball through the legs in the ninth inning of a world series (Bill Buckner), a missed field goal that would have won a Super Bowl (Scott Norwood), putting the puck in your own net in a Stanley Cup playoff (Steve Smith)…but there are hundreds, if not thousands of moments in a game that contribute to the subsidence. I’ll just focus on the glaring ones.
There is no question in my mind that Matt Murray, who recently won two Stanley Cups, and I mean he won two Stanley Cups, was the crux of victory or defeat. Goaltending, as in outrageous goaltending, is the key to raising the Cup. He wasn’t awful on paper, given his so-so stats of 2.43 goals-against average and a not-so-so-so .908 save percentage. But playing so-so does not cut it. Neither does good or great…it takes playing cliches like; out-of-his mind, lights out, insane, out-of-the-park, balls-to-the-walls…in order to; raise the silver chalice, capture Lord Stanley’s prize, win the greatest trophy in sports, drink from the Cup…
To drink from the Cup, Washington’s Braden Holtby (who did not even start the playoffs against Columbus), who was so great in this series, will need to rise to one of these aforementioned platitudes. Vegas Golden Knights’ Marc-Andre Fleury is already there. Fleury looks like he has been training with Cirque du Soleil, who have a permanent home in Las Vegas. Fleury’s play is the stuff of TV movies. I’ll go on and on about the ex-Pen – who is incapable of frowning- another time.
Defense, or the lack thereof, was another culprit here. Kris Letang did not have the year he had before neck injuries had him miss all of last year’s playoffs…not in the regular season (which just doesn’t count), not in the playoffs. And coach Mike Sullivan had this team playing aggressive defense (pinching), making Pittsburgh vulnerable to Washington’s odd-man rushes and breakaways. That defense apparently had become so predictable, the Caps Capitalized on it over and over and over.
Add to that the lack of depth, depth that had been provided in 2016 and ’17 from Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz, all who had gone elsewhere. There was little contribution from Conor Sheary, Brian Rust, Carl Hagelin, Kris Letang, and Derick Brassard, whose last minute trade for Ian Cole didn’t quite work out. Reportedly, Brassard was playing with injuries that he did not disclose to the team for fear of being out of the lineup. If that is the case, he would have left a healthy player a healthy scratch. Of course, if Brassard wasn’t doing the job, Pens coach Mike Sullivan could have replaced him with another, but from where I sit, I’m still wishing Ian Cole was in the Pens’ locker room. That was a player with grit and character, something Mario Lemieux told GM Jim Rutherford he wanted.
Then there is the question of physical, mental, and emotional fatigue. The Penguins were reigning champions for 694 days while playing over 300 games in 649 scheduled days over three seasons. You’ve got to figure the energy of that team, a team that has won two Cups, may not be as hungry as the one who keeps failing to get one.
Maybe it’s not any one of these things or even a combination of them. Perhaps the Caps just wanted it more. Frankly, I’ve never seen the Capitals play with such resolution and resolve. I can tell you that Capitals star player Alexander Ovechkin was one hungry dude, having never seen the ice of a conference championship game.
Sid Crosby and Jake Guentzel were amazing, so much so, they led all playoff players in points. Patric Hornqvist had an impact but his net front presence was not enough. And the Pens needed more from Phil “the thrill” Kessel and Evgeni Malkin. When you get down to it, when you lay it all out, when the final bell rings, when the fat lady sings, the bottom line is…playoff hockey is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. And that’s all I have to say about that.
(Lee Kann is a media producer and freelance writer for the New Pittsburgh Courier.) Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org