In the end, the NHL’s most potent offensive team just couldn’t find a way to score.
As much of a longshot as the Pittsburgh Penguins were to come back from the 0-3 hole they dug for themselves in the Eastern Conference Final, the odds were nearly as much in their favor that, if they kept finding a way to generate offensive chances on the Boston Bruins and goaltender Tuuka Rask, the goals would eventually come.
Instead, Pittsburgh became just the fifth team in NHL history to score two goals or fewer over the course of a series lasting four or more games. Boston continued to stifle the Penguins in Friday’s Game 4, just as they had all series long. And, when defenseman Adam McQuaid fired a long-range, rooftop blast past Penguins netminder Tomas Vokoun five minutes into the third period, the 1-0 lead was all the Bruins would need to sweep Pittsburgh out of the playoffs.
“You don’t expect to go out in four straight,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “The last couple games, I thought we deserved better. Unfortunately, we didn’t find a way to regroup after dropping [the first] two at home.”
And they didn’t find a way to put pucks in the net. In addition to being the league’s highest-scoring team in the regular season, Pittsburgh rolled through the first two playoff rounds with an average of 4.27 goals per game and a power play that had gone 13 for 36. In this series, however, the Bruins:
- outscored the Penguins 12-2;
- shut down Pittsburgh’s power play on all 15 chances;
- turned aside 134 of 136 shots on goal; and
- held superstars Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to a combined zero points and -7 rating.
“We didn’t score,” Crosby said. “It wasn’t a lack of chances. You can talk about their defensive play – they are patient, they’re a good hockey team – but we had our fair share of opportunities and we either had pucks hop over our sticks or hit posts or didn’t execute for different reasons. [Rask] is part of it, but there’s a number of things that we’ll look back on and know we could’ve been better.”
The Penguins couldn’t have asked for much better in terms of personnel. GM Ray Shero was aggressive at the trade deadline, parting with prospects and draft picks to load up for an all-out run at the Stanley Cup with veteran leaders Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow, big defenseman Douglas Murray and versatile forward Jussi Jokinen. Of those, only Jokinen, who was in and out of the lineup during the playoffs, is signed for next year.
“I was fortunate to have that choice [to join Pittsburgh over Boston] and, when you make it, you definitely believe in the guys here,” Iginla said. “We played some great hockey up until this last series, and what also stings is [personally] not playing well in this last series. These four games, I just didn’t play very well, and that’s when you want to be at your best for the team, find ways to contribute and be a part of these close games and help it go the other way.”
Vokoun was one Penguin who fully lived up to the team’s expectations for him. Acquired last summer for a seventh-round draft pick, the 36-year-old veteran was brought in to relieve some of Marc-Andre Fleury’s workload, and to provide insurance in case the 28-year-old starter faltered down the stretch. When that happened in the first round against the New York Islanders, Vokoun got the nod and held on to the starting job through the rest of the postseason.
And – with the possible exception of Game 2 against the Bruins, where Fleury came in to shake things up during a poor performance by the entire team – Vokoun more than delivered, particularly in Games 3 and 4 in Boston where he lost by the slender margins of 2-1 in double overtime and 1-0, respectively.
“It’s a shock; I don’t think words can describe it,” Vokoun said. “You go through the season with a team like we had and it’s very disappointing. It’s a tough moment. Unfortunately, only one team can win, and it’s not going to be us.”
“Tomas, I thought, was two goals short of brilliant, two goals short of Tuuka Rask in these two games,” said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. “Not as many saves as Rask in Game 3, but he was equally up to the task, and he was again tonight. I thought he played outstanding; it was dueling goaltenders a lot for these Games 3 and 4.”
Now the Penguins begin an offseason that will technically be shorter than any since they won the Stanley Cup in 2009, but likely to feel much longer given the weight of unfulfilled expectations. Every aspect of the team, from coaching to goaltending to impending free agents, will be scrutinized – by the media and fans, to be sure, but also by the ownership and management responsible for making decisions about them.
Right now, Vokoun said, “it’s too early” to fully assess what went wrong. “The easy way is to say we didn’t score enough, but I think we have to give it a little bit more time. It’s really hard to judge everything that happened in the last two weeks; it’s really disappointing. We had a great team and we just didn’t get it done.”