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PHN Extra: Getting It Wrong On Penguins’ Playoff Promise

Full marks to Washington, but our focus will be on how the Penguins let this series get away.



Wrong side of handshakes. - Icon Sportswire

PITTSBURGH — I can admit when I got it wrong.

Since the end of Game 4 at PPG Paints Arena, I wrote about how the Capitals were primed for another collapse and how the Penguins were just hitting their playoff stride.

Hopefully we’re playing by baseball rules and I get a third swing at this thing.

First of all, full marks to Washington, because obviously I didn’t think Barry Trotz’s boys had it in them to pull it out, especially after Nicklas Bäckström was ruled out of Game 6. 

However — and maybe it’s because of where I live and the team I cover — but I found myself wondering throughout Monday night how the Penguins could’ve been so disjointed as the team with the vastly superior Stanley Cup playoff experience.

Mike Sullivan took a crack at it, although his perspective was more big-picture in nature.

“We just had to have more players playing at their best,” Sullivan said, seemingly still reeling from his first playoff defeat as Penguins head coach. “I think I’m going to have to digest this to see what the takeaway might be.”

No doubt, Evgeni Malkin and (especially) Phil Kessel weren’t capable of their usual performance due to varying medical reasons, but Derick Brassard didn’t deliver much in terms of tangible production, Kris Letang continued a season of miscues into the spring, and Matt Murray wasn’t at his best for much of the playoffs.

Perhaps that’s why Game 6 didn’t rise to an epic level, despite the sudden-death finish. I knew in my head that history doesn’t matter as much as some fans and commentators believe, but I can’t be alone in feeling like the evening left much to be desired.

Yes, the stakes made it thrilling throughout, but with Trotz’s Capitals admittedly playing a “systematic game” in their 2-1 overtime win Monday night, some of the paint had already been drained from the canvas. Add to that a Penguins team that looked as jittery and tight as we’ve seen them under Sullivan, and you get a game that we’d all be panning if it happened in November or January.

Sidney Crosby didn’t disagree with that assessment when I presented it to him.

“I thought both sides were pretty tentative,” Crosby said. “Definitely with us, I think we were. When you do that, you’re defending well and in good position, but you’re not forcing them into mistakes, you’re not wearing other teams down. I thought we did a good job of that the prior couple of games.”

Crosby mentioned Games 4 and 5 as encouraging on multiple occasions, so I don’t feel that far off-base in using them to fuel my confidence the Penguins would rebound to take the series.

Injured? You need a lawyer. Call Joshua R. Lamm.

“Once you’re in it, the important thing is to get better every game,” Crosby continued. “Coming off the last couple games we had, I thought we were playing good hockey.”

Here’s the thing about Game 5, though: It had to sting the Penguins almost as much as Game 6, since they didn’t convert that performance into what could’ve been a pivotal positive result.

“I think it’s timely goals by them,” Carl Hagelin said. “The last game, we had a lead in the third period and give up an easy goal.”

It wouldn’t be accurate to call Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s series-winning goal “easy,” but it still was the result of a turnover in a sensitive area of the ice. In this case, both Letang (errant breakout pass) and Crosby (inability to corral said pass) have to share primary responsibility, as does every Penguins skater out there for the sudden end of a three-peat fantasy.

“They were kind of a mess in the middle and they had a player streaking down,” Letang said of the Capitals’ decisive regroup. “It’s not really a mistake, but we got scored on.

“They were waiting for mistakes and they capitalized on both of them. We hit the post in overtime. We’re going to Game 7 otherwise.”

Ah, yes, the close call for Tom Kühnhackl, of all people. For all their false starts and inconsistencies, the Penguins were an inch away from playing for a berth in the Eastern Conference final Wednesday in Washington.

Despite fielding some leading questions about the still-open championship window, most of the Penguins available to reporters in the dressing room declined to talk much about the future. It’s hard to look ahead a few minutes after a dream dies, you know?

“I think we had a great chance to do it again,” said Letang, who couldn’t make a fairy-tale return to the playoffs after missing last year’s repeat run. “I don’t think we got dominated but we have to tip our hat to that (Capitals) group. They capitalized on what they got. We’ve done some great things but we expect more.”

“Emptiness would be a good word,” Murray said after his first playoff series loss as a Penguin.

As a result of this defeat, now the Penguins will have to contend with a Washington team that has cleaned some of the “skeletons in the closet,” to use Trotz’s words late Monday night.

Beyond that, the Capitals impressed the Penguins with their ability to lock down the game when they felt they needed to do so.

“They were just the better team,” Murray said. “I thought they played a heck of a game tonight. I don’t feel like we had many chances at all. They’re a great team and they deserved it.”

Leave it to the affable Malkin to try a positive spin on the situation. He’s probably looking forward to the opportunity to let that lower-body injury heal properly, but that’s beside the point he was trying to make.

“You have to look forward,” Malkin said. “A little more rest this summer, you know? Work hard and be better next year. … Three years, it’s so hard. Maybe we were a little tired, too. But now, we look forward.”

That’s nice, but I’ll always wonder exactly why the Penguins’ thrusters ran out of power when they did. There’s always next year. There’s not always a chance to do something great, like this group had.

I suppose the Penguins and I had something in common Monday night. We both expected more.

“With this team, you always feel like you have a chance,” Justin Schultz said. “We worked hard and had a lot of chances. Just couldn’t get the job done.”

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.



  1. Tanner

    May 8, 2018 at 2:01 am

    Told my girlfriend before the game i hoped the pens didn’t run out of gas after game 5. i dont think the tank was empty. But it definitely started sputtering. I am 110% curious what injuries we will hear of. Phil has to have something bad. Thanks for the coverage and for converting me from your former employer.

    • Matt Gajtka

      May 8, 2018 at 11:16 am

      Thanks for joining, Tanner! I have to wonder what Malkin had going on, too. Maybe a sprained knee ligament?

      • Tanner

        May 8, 2018 at 3:55 pm

        That too! I almost forgot about his injury. It looked really bad. For sure he was hurt.

  2. Robert

    May 8, 2018 at 8:50 am

    Malkin is right.

  3. Matt Luda

    May 8, 2018 at 12:16 pm

    I couldn’t get over the utter lack of respect a two-time defending champion received from the league, referees and media. What took place in Games 2 and 3 on and off the ice was pathetic and says a lot about the NHL, not that it came as a surprise.

    So while the NBA promotes the heck out of LeBron James, James Harden, Kevin Durant and their teams, the NHL favors do-nothing scumbags like Tom Wilson, Barry Trotz and the no-class Capitals.

    The NHL deserves to be irrelevant.

    • Matt Gajtka

      May 8, 2018 at 1:12 pm

      I respect your opinion, but of course every other team feels like the Penguins are favored. I fear we’ll never reach a consensus, but I suppose that’s sports.

    • Robbie

      May 8, 2018 at 3:27 pm

      You nailed it. A lot of puckheads actually tried to make Wilscum the victim, if you can believe it. OK, I can believe it. This is the Neanderthal Hockey League.

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