It seems too fitting. In a series decided by Pittsburgh Penguins gaffes, the biggest gaffes by defenseman Kris Letang, it was again a mistake by Letang which rolled the red carpet for Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov on the overtime game-winning breakaway. The Capitals also burned Letang for a pair of goals in the third period of Game 5.
It’s over. The Penguins have no one else to blame but themselves. No one. The Penguins couldn’t beat the Capitals who played without Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom. The only team the Penguins could beat were themselves.
They held a third period lead over the Capitals four times in the first five games. They won just two.
And this is why the regular season matters.
While other teams escalated their game, honed strategies and, most importantly, formed good habits over the past six months, the Penguins blew off the regular season. They had won two consecutive Stanley Cups. Surely they could turn it on when necessary. No worries.
“They’ll be fine,” said fans.
“We’ll be fine,” said the team.
They weren’t fine. In Round 2, the Penguins played with playoff intensity but an October structure. Never were they consistent. In the playoffs, never did they play consecutive well-executed games. The Penguins flailed about like an unprepared boxer who tried to rely on veteran skills to beat a hungry opponent.
Just like the Tampa Bay Lightning, who last year lumbered through the regular season and missed the playoffs, the Penguins tried to skip ahead to the end of the book.
This is why Mike Sullivan gritted his teeth and went to the whip, at mid-season. The writing was on the wall. And not even the acquisition of the top trade target Derick Brassard could pull it all together.
On Monday night, long before the final sentence was written, the goats and heroes lined up. With their goal within reach, the Capitals had energy and hunger in the third period and into overtime.
Before the Penguins allowed yet another odd-man rush, Phil Kessel continued to mishandle the puck. NBCSN announcers marveled at Letang and Brian Dumoulin’s poor communication and positioning, while Capitals grinders Lars Eller, Alex Chaisson, and Brett Connolly had big chances.
Braden Holtby made saves, and Matt Murray rebounded from a soft goal to make a handful of great saves. It came down to who wanted it more and who would make a key mistake. The Capitals didn’t over-commit or gamble, despite having momentum late in the game.
In fact, that was the Capitals strategy for most of Game 6. Without Wilson (suspension) and Backstrom (injury), they chose to forgo offense in exchange for limiting the Penguins offense. The strategy was pitch perfect. The Capitals restricted the Penguins rush by taking every inch of space in the neutral zone and attacking the Penguins puck carriers.
The Capitals executed flawlessly. Like their playoff lives depended on it.
The Capitals defensive strategy essentially relied on Penguins mistakes. And they forced many. Even Sidney Crosby turned the puck over three times in the first period, including a gift to Kuznetsov in front of the Penguins net. Perhaps Crosby turned it over on the Kuznetsov winner, too.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan shuffled his lines in the second period, and the Penguins had a pulse. They pushed the Capitals throughout the second period, but could not sustain it.
Three straight Stanley Cups is a near impossible feat. In the salary-cap era, it could be a long, long time before another team even repeats let alone chases three. And that is what makes the Penguins loss so significant.
They could have won the series. They should have won the series. Had the Penguins played well, it would have been possible to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning and any team in the Western Conference. They didn’t have to be hungrier than the Capitals, they merely had to limit mistakes.
The championship window is far from shut. The Penguins are still and will be very good for several more years. And that’s why the next regular season, which begins in October, will matter.