When the Penguins’ season ended Friday, it looked like this. A turnover from normally reliable fourth-liner Brandon Tanev to the stick of Montreal’s Paul Byron, then four white jerseys standing in front of goaltender Tristan Jarry, all of them neglecting to cover the Canadiens’ Artturi Lehkonen as he broke a 0-0 stalemate with the only goal that mattered.
Just 4:11 remained on the clock and, for as much as Pittsburgh had generated on the night, it might as well have been at the buzzer. Shea Weber hit the empty net with 32 seconds remaining to seal the deal for the Canadiens, who advance out of the qualifiers to Round 1 of the playoffs, while the Penguins head home.
Perhaps the season really began to come to an end Wednesday, though, right about at the midway point of the second period of Game 3. That’s when the Canadiens’ Jonathan Drouin drove to the net, deflected in Ben Chiarot’s shot and began to chip away at the 3-1 Pittsburgh lead that turned into a 4-3 loss.
Or maybe it was all the way back in the regular season, when they went on a 3-8-0 slide before the league went on pause due to COVID-19. Somehow, the Penguins who looked like a team of destiny in January, battling through a season with 302 man-games lost to injury and using that adversity to embrace a hardworking, team-first mentality, started to look a little bit lost. They looked exhausted, like it was all starting to catch up with them.
The four-plus month break before the NHL’s Return to Play may have been under highly unusual circumstances, taking players away from their home cities and families to one of the two hub city bubbles, but the Penguins seemed poised to benefit from the downtime as much as any team.
How to explain, then, a qualifying round series in which Pittsburgh faced a team that ranked last of the 24 clubs invited to the Return to Play, yet looked outworked at best, disinterested at worst?
“I think that’s a tough question,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “Listen, it’s a 3 out of 5, and anything can happen. We did some good things; we didn’t do enough. Give them credit. They played really well; got some big plays throughout the four games.
“I think it’s a pretty broad question given we did some pretty good things with the amount of injuries we had throughout the year and this is the situation we were faced with. Would have loved a better outcome, but it’s hard…to really draw a season as a whole when there’s a four-month break and you start all over again. This is a whole separate thing, and we didn’t play good enough to win.”
“I think we had good moments [this season], but you’re talking about seven or eight months ago,” said defenseman Kris Letang. “I don’t think you can associate what just happened to our regular season. The break that we just witnessed is longer than the offseason. I thought guys prepared themselves well but, when the puck dropped, we faced a well-balanced team with a great goaltender that played better than us. You have to evaluate the regular season and the summer playoff as two different things.”
In evaluating the summer playoff, then, the Penguins managed just eight goals in four games against the Canadiens and goalie Carey Price. That came on the heels of scoring just six in their four-game sweep by the New York Islanders last spring, and three or fewer in 14 consecutive playoff games. Those are head-shaking numbers for a team with Pittsburgh’s offensive pedigree.
“I thought Game 1 we played really well,” Crosby said. “We came out hard, and to play as well as we did, to get as many chances and lose that one, that hurts. But that happens in the playoffs. Your look at last game, we get a 3-1 lead, we don’t get the next one, we let them back in it and we give them hope.
“We shut them down for the rest of that period and we’re looking at a probably totally different situation. It doesn’t take much, it’s a short series, and things kind of swung in their favor with them being able to come back in that game.”
The Penguins’ third defensive pairing of Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz was a liability – and one that head coach Mike Sullivan stuck with through Game 4, despite having depth defensemen Chad Ruhwedel and Jusso Riikola available. Goalie Matt Murray shined in Game 2 and wasn’t the reason the Penguins lost Games 1 and 3, but Jarry, who got the call with elimination on the line in Game 4, might have been the better choice for the series after a more consistent season.
And Montreal, of course, had Price, who finished with a 1.67 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.
“Game 1 he was really, really good,” Crosby said. “We threw a lot at him; we had some quality chances. He made some timely saves. I don’t think we were passing up shots or hitting posts; he just played really well. We know he’s a great goalie. I don’t think it was a matter of trying to play around him, but he did what you expect him to do and he gave his team a chance to win. And unfortunately, we didn’t do a good enough job of putting the puck in the net or, when we got a lead, building on it.”
“I said before the series started that we had a lot of respect for Montreal and how good they are, and I meant that sincerely,” Sullivan said. “These guys are all good players; they’re NHL players. They’ve got a lot of young talent on the team that’s starting to take a next step. They’ve got great leadership with some of their defensemen, and they have an elite goaltender. We knew this was going to be a hard series; I don’t think any of us had any thought otherwise.”
And now begins the inevitable conversation about windows closing – specifically, Stanley Cup windows for the Penguins’ core of Crosby, who turned 33 Friday, as well as Evgeni Malkin (34) and Letang (33).
“I don’t believe that,” Sullivan said. “I believe these guys are still elite players; I believe in this core. I just think they’re such character guys, they’re elite hockey players and I still think there’s elite play left in them. Obviously at some point everybody’s window closes; you could argue that with any team in the league. But I strongly believe that this group has a lot of elite hockey.”
“I can only speak personally, but I would have liked to stay a little bit healthier and play a full season,” said Crosby, who had surgery for a core muscle injury in November. “It’s been a tough year and a half of not playing a lot of hockey with a long offseason and only playing 20 games, coming back for a short period and then having this. It’d be nice to get into a rhythm and it would’ve been great to play meaningful games right now. It’s a really hard one to evaluate.”
The unusual circumstances of the long layoff, followed by a single exhibition game and a best-of-five elimination series, also makes it hard to evaluate where the Penguins stand in terms of their personnel and organizational direction after a second stunning exit in as many years.
“I haven’t even really given it much thought at this point,” Sullivan said. “We just lost the series. It’s disappointing; it’s emotional. We care; we all care. I don’t know if I’m prepared to answer at this point. I’m sure we’ll all have to go back and look at the experience and try to evaluate it and assess it, and see where we go.”