NHL: Penguins have plenty of questions, but few answers
Ray Shero left little doubt at the trade deadline, with the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager telling anyone who would listen his team was “all in” for the Stanley Cup after giving stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin accomplished sidekicks in Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow.
The roster built to bookend the championship the franchise won in 2009 instead went bust against Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.
Four games. Four losses. Two measly goals over nearly 14 periods by the NHL’s highest-scoring team. Exactly zero seconds when they held a lead. Instead of a ticker tape parade, the Penguins face a summer filled with question marks and soul searching.
“You feel like with the expectations that we have on ourselves, that the team has for this group, no question you’re going to look at this as a missed opportunity,” coach Dan Bylsma said.
It’s one that could lead to significant changes on the ice and on the bench.
Bylsma insisted before Game 4 that he didn’t feel as though he was coaching for his job. But the sweep by the Bruins — the first time Pittsburgh had gone out so meekly in 34 years — leaves him just 3-4 in postseason series since leading Pittsburgh to the Cup four months after he inherited the job.
Each of the previous three springs, there were reasonable excuses: a mild Cup hangover in 2010; injuries to Malkin and Crosby in ’11; a wild and emotional first-round loss to Philadelphia last spring that played like an anomaly.
Not this time. The Penguins posted the Eastern Conference’s best record during a lockout-shortened season and went 8-3 during the opening two rounds against the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators. They averaged 4.27 goals — the highest mark midway through a postseason in more than 20 years. And they received solid play in net from journeyman Tomas Vokoun, who went 6-1 in his first seven starts after replacing Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the Islanders series.
Crosby, Malkin, Iginla and defenseman Kris Letang were among the playoff scoring leaders. They were heavily favored to beat the Bruins, who needed a miracle to escape a first-round upset by Toronto.
It never happened. Not even close. Boston’s defense took away the swaths of open ice that allowed Crosby and Malkin to operate. Goaltender Tuukka Rask took away the rest.
Pittsburgh’s lowest goal total over a four-game stretch during the regular season was nine. They didn’t even manage a quarter of that versus the Bruins. Malkin and Crosby didn’t collect a point. Letang was an ugly minus-7 and Vokoun briefly imploded in Game 2.
Two more defeats — though closely contested — awaited in Boston. The season and the series fittingly ending with Rask stuffing Malkin one final time.
“We scored four goals in two games. It’s not enough,” Malkin said. “It’s my mistakes that I scored zero goals. It’s not good for me.”
He was hardly alone. From Pittsburgh’s first shot of the series — one from Crosby that clanged off the post — the Penguins couldn’t deliver when it mattered.
“The timing in those big moments we need to come up with big plays, and we didn’t,” Crosby said.
The fallout could be significant. Malkin and Letang, a Norris Trophy finalist, will enter the final year of their contracts in July, and glue-guy Pascal Dupuis is a free agent.
It is a given the Penguins will do what it takes to retain Malkin. But Letang’s sloppy play against the Bruins combined with the high price he’ll likely command and the shrinking salary cap make his future in Pittsburgh murky. Dupuis played so well in the shortened season (38 points in 48 games) he may have played himself into a new tax bracket.
Even cloudier is Fleury’s status. The former No. 1 overall pick, who helped lift the Penguins to consecutive appearances in the Cup finals in 2008 and ‘09, has now been knocked around in successive springs. His only appearance over the final two rounds came in two-plus so-so periods in relief of Vokoun in Game 2. When Bylsma had an opening to put Fleury back in the lineup for Game 3, the coach instead opted for the 36-year-old Vokoun.
Fleury is making over $5 million a season. Vokoun makes $3 million less but turns 37 in three weeks.
The Penguins were willing to ship away prospects and draft picks to rent Iginla, Morrow and defenseman Douglas Murray for a few months. All three will become free agents without the Cup they came to Pittsburgh to snare.
Iginla spurned the Bruins for the Penguins at the trade deadline, only to see Boston block the future Hall of Famer’s shot at winning his first championship. While he was productive — collecting 12 points in the first 11 games of the playoffs — he also spent most of his time in Pittsburgh playing out of position at left wing.
It’s a role Iginla was willing to take for the sake of a title. Now he hits the open market wondering when his next opportunity will come. The guys he briefly called teammates will spent the summer wondering the same.
“Obviously we’re a very good team,” Iginla said. “We went cold at the wrong time.”