First things first, as we look back at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ premature evacuation from the Stanley Cup playoffs
Adam Fox did some special things at both ends of the ice for the New York Rangers during the opening round. His first Norris Trophy likely won’t be his last.
Mika Zibanejad rediscovered his goal-scoring touch when his team needed it most.
And Igor Shesterkin, so leaky in the middle of Round 1, made the timely stops that allowed New York to eliminate the Penguins in seven games.
All were factors in the Rangers’ advance to the second round.
None, however, had anything close to the impact of Jacob Trouba.
For if Trouba hadn’t driven an elbow into Sidney Crosby’s head during Game 5, Shesterkin never would have had a chance to produce key saves in the two games that followed, and Artemi Panarin wouldn’t have been able to end the series with an overtime goal in Game 7.
Because there never would have been a Game 6 or 7.
Had Trouba not knocked Crosby out of the rest of Game 5 and all of Game 6, the Penguins would have locked up the series last Wednesday and would have been well-rested and healthy enough to pose a significant threat to Carolina in the second round.
These Penguins were not realistic Stanley Cup contenders — that window closed a few years ago — but they were good enough to win a round or two. And they certainly were good enough to beat the 2022 Rangers, who aren’t close to the apex of their development.
But it didn’t happen, and primary responsibility for that belongs to Trouba.
While the Penguins can’t be absolved of culpability for failing to protect multiple-goal leads in Games 5 and 6, it also shouldn’t be ignored that Crosby wasn’t on the ice for any of that.
Give Trouba this: He identified the greatest threat to his team’s survival in the series, and eliminated it, at least for a few days.
Illegal? Well, not in the NHL.
And maybe not in some pro-wrestling companies. Maybe.
But that really doesn’t matter now.
The only thing that does is that Trouba neutralized Crosby long enough for New York to get control of the series.
And that is why a second-pairing defenseman — not a former Norris recipient, the potential Vezina winner or any other high-profile Rangers player — was the biggest difference-maker in it.
Some other thoughts on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ fifth consecutive defeat in a playoff series:
*** It’s fitting that Panarin ended the series with a power-play goal, since the Rangers scored on six of 19 chances with the extra man over those seven games. The Penguins’ penalty-kill, so good for so much of the season, was poor too much of the time during the stretch drive and Round 1.
*** The sample size is too small to suggest that Tristan Jarry purged the demons of his 2021 playoff performance with his 26-save effort in Game 7, but it was at least a good start. It was gutsy for Jarry simply to dress for the game; to give his club a legit shot at winning it was all that could reasonably have been expected.
*** Jason Zucker had a good series for a guy who finished with just two assists and a minus-3 plus/minus rating. He was fearless and selfless, and competed with the ferocity of an angry wolverine. Minus a goal or two, it was the game the Penguins were counting on him to bring during the playoffs when they acquired him from Minnesota.
*** It’s unfortunate that the Marcus Pettersson-John Marino pairing was victimized on New York’s game-tying goal late in the third period of Game 7 (Pettersson left the ice after hsi helmet was pulled off and Marino turned the puck over seconds before Zibanejad scored), because it soured a strong series by those two. Neither consistently performed to expectations during the regular season, but they were effective against New York. Until that goal, anyway.
*** Not that anyone should have needed a reminder, but Crosby and Jake Guentzel are a pretty productive tandem. They combined for 10 goals (eight by Guentzel) and 10 assists in 12-plus man-games against the Rangers, and are one piece of the Penguins’ personnel puzzle that seems unlikely to change next season.
*** Evan Rodrigues’ sensational shorthanded goal late in the second period of Game 7 will be forgotten over time, and that’s a shame. If it had stood up as the series-winner, a statue already would have been commissioned.
*** The Pittsburgh Penguins were, by almost any objective measure, the better team in the series. Trouble is, the only measure of real consequence is games-won, and New York was the first to four.
And the Rangers can thank Jacob Trouba — more than Shesterkin or Panarin or Fox or Zibanejad or anyone else — for making that possible.