Thursday, on the eve of what could be one of the most crushing postseason letdowns in their franchise history, the Pittsburgh Penguins chose not to practice. Instead, they rested from Wednesday’s Game 2, which most certainly qualifies among the most crushing postseason losses in franchise history.
Down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Final to the Boston Bruins, the Penguins had finally delivered a performance to be proud of. Over nearly five periods of hockey, they fired 54 shots at Bruins netminder Tuuka Rask and attempted 47 more. They played smart and with desperation befitting their situation, limiting the turnovers that had cost them in the first two games, winning 57 percent of the faceoff battles and killing all five Bruins power plays.
Unfortunately for the Penguins, none of that mattered. For all of their offensive firepower, they managed to get just one shot by Rask for only their second goal in three games. Their own power play was blanked in six attempts, making it 0-for-the series.
And at 12:13 a.m., 15:19 into a second overtime, it was 41-year-old former Penguin Jaromir Jagr beating 26-year-old Evgeni Malkin in a battle along the boards to gain control of the puck and send it up to Brad Marchand, who put it in front for Patrice Bergeron, who swiftly fired it past Pittsburgh netminder Tomas Vokoun to send the Penguins away empty-handed – and on the brink of elimination.
“Looking at the situation, [being] down 0-3, you can look at the odds and the history and it’s not a very encouraging picture,” said head coach Dan Bylsma, speaking at a Thursday press conference at the team’s Boston hotel. “There are other circumstances to look at … in the Olympics, for Canada to win a gold medal, they’ve got to win four elimination games, and those are games you have to win to go on.
“And that’s where we’re at right now. We don’t have to win four games against the Boston Bruins, we have to win one game tomorrow night to move on to Game 5, to get this thing back to the ‘Burgh, and that’s what we have to look at. Not the odds, not the numbers, not four games [or] four wins. We have to look at winning one hockey game, 60 minutes, tomorrow night.”
To do that, the Penguins will not only have to continue to solve the Bruins’ relentless team defense to generate offensive chances, which they did effectively for the first time in the majority of Game 3. They’ll have to figure out a way to get pucks by Rask, who prevented them from winning a game they dominated in regulation.
“His performance in the series has been outstanding,” Bylsma said. “We’ve had good opportunities [but] we haven’t been able to solve him at all, and I think largely, last night, [he] stands as the difference in that game.”
“I think last night was the best one-on-one goalie battle I’ve seen in a long time,” said center Brandon Sutter. “I think both goalies played outstanding, Vokie gave us a chance to win, and it just didn’t go our way. We’ve got to do a better job of getting more pucks toward Rask and try to get in front of him more. We’re still looking to get some greasy goals around the net and try to bang some in.”
Of all the problems the Penguins might have expected to encounter in the two-month grind toward their goal of a Stanley Cup, a lack of scoring would likely have been at the bottom of the list. With world-class offensive talents like Sidney Crosby, Malkin, James Neal, Jarome Iginla, Kris Letang and more, the Penguins were the NHL’s top-scoring team in the regular season and through the first two playoff rounds, where they scored an average of 4.27 goals per game. In this series so far, they’ve been outscored 11-2.
“In every game, there’s a certain percentage of good or bad fortune involved,” Vokoun said. “Sometimes you do the right things, [but] it doesn’t always mean it’s going to be success. It doesn’t really matter, but I don’t even know how many times we hit the posts. They hit some, too, but they also got some goals, so some good fortune on their part. It’s not an excuse; it’s just the reality of the situation.”
“We don’t have enough goals in any of the games to win them yet, so we haven’t produced enough offense as a team,” Bylsma said. “In terms of scoring chances, in terms of generating, we’ve had a number of those – not just in last night’s game – and we’ve gotten them from all four lines. We did a lot of things we wanted to do [in Game 3], but we didn’t get that second goal. And that’s a picture we need to solve, and that’s what we’re going to do in Game 4.”
If they don’t, it will feel like a very long offseason for a team that was built solely for the purpose of erasing the early playoff exits of the past three seasons and recapturing the championship the Penguins last won in 2009.
“It’s obviously been a pretty special year in terms of the regular season and how well we played,” Sutter said. “It definitely is a talented group, and you get that first seed going in [to the playoffs] and we were pretty confident all year in our abilities. And I think that, even though now we’re in a bit of a tight situation, we don’t need to lose that confidence.
“Even though it’s a short season this year, there’s still a lot of ups and downs throughout, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job staying level-headed through it all. And right now is no different. We’re just going to keep playing, keep fighting. We don’t want this to end; we’re still trying to chase the Cup and I don’t think that’s going to change. Our mindset’s the same as it was going into Game 1 or Game 2. We’ve just got to win a game and, once we do, then we’ll worry about the next one.”