The core, brought back at bargain contracts for the chance to make one more run at the Stanley Cup, did their part.
Sidney Crosby? At age 35, he didn’t miss a game and put together a season worthy of MVP consideration with 91 points (33G, 58A) in 81 games.
Evgeni Malkin, at age 36, also played in every contest and was a point-per-game contributor. With 83 points (27G, 56A) in 81 games, many of them came, as they have for years, when his team most needed a lift.
Then there was Kris Letang. Also age 35, he missed 18 games this year, remarkable when you consider that he suffered the second stroke of his young life, followed by a lower-body injury and the death of his father. He was the Penguins’ Masterton Trophy nominee for perseverance, hit the 1,000-game milestone and put up 39 points (11G, 28A) – all while leading the team with an average 24:51 of ice time per game, the 10th-highest TOI average in the NHL.
The Penguins had six players with 20+ goals. Only 14 NHL teams scored more than their 259; they were a little worse than the middle of the pack with just about the same number, 260, allowed. So, where did it all go so wrong?
Sure, as of Wednesday morning, the Penguins still had a mathematical chance of making the playoffs. A whole, whopping 9.4% chance, according to Moneypuck. The Islanders, who host Montreal Wednesday night, just have to lose in regulation, while the Penguins, traveling to Columbus Thursday, just have to beat the NHL’s worst team in game 82 of 82.
Except the Penguins couldn’t beat the NHL’s other worst team, the Chicago Blackhawks, on home ice Tuesday, when they held their playoff destiny in their own hands. When it was as close to a one-and-done as it gets, against an objectively lesser opponent, Pittsburgh simply couldn’t find a way to finish.
“Anybody can beat anybody in this league; there’s such a fine line between winning and losing and you’ve got to be at your best every night,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “When you’re not, you’re going to run the risk of getting beat.”
“I think we’ve shown against really good opponents that we can put a system in a game and play really well,” Letang said. “And, when we have chances against teams that are not necessarily in a playoff spot and have nothing to lose, we don’t bring the same kind of demeanor or play a full 60 minutes.”
For the most part, Pittsburgh did seem to realize the stakes Tuesday night. They overwhelmingly drove possession and put up 40 shots and 82 total attempts, including shots blocked and missed, against the Blackhawks and goaltender Petr Mrazek, while Chicago answered with just 27 shots and 42 total attempts.
Perhaps if the Penguins had played with a similar level of urgency for a majority of the 2022-23 season, it wouldn’t have come to this.
“It’s hard to say right now,” Malkin said. “It’s a tough season for everybody; we played up and down all year. We should play better whole year; coach always says, two points in October is huge, two points in November, December is a help to us in April.”
With their season on the line, it took until 5:28 of the third period, when Malkin finally converted on Pittsburgh’s fourth power play of the night, for the NHL’s eighth-worst shooting team, converting on just 9.3% of their shots this year, to put one home.
“We were trying to get pucks through and did a good job,” Crosby said. “[The Blackhawks] were pretty patient; they tried to keep everything to the outside. We had a lot of zone time and they made us work to get to the inside and get good-quality chances and, the ones we got, we didn’t execute.
“You look at the grade-A’s or the quality chances that we had and, most nights, we get all of those; those are going in the back of the net. And then some that were laying around the net that we didn’t find a way to put in; it’s hard to explain those ones. Most times those go in, and they didn’t.”
By the time Danton Heinen scored with 37.4 seconds remaining, closing what had become a 4-1 Chicago lead to 4-2, the Penguins’ season was all but over.
“We didn’t give up a whole lot, and we had a lot of territorial advantage in the first 40 minutes, even though we were down [1-0],” Sullivan said. “The only area where I thought we could’ve done a better job was just getting inside a little more and to the blue paint so we could deliver pucks to the net, to give us an opportunity to break the coverage down that way.
“We had a lot of looks; we just didn’t score. I thought in the third period we probably pressed, and we gave up a 2-on-1 at an inopportune time that we’ve been really good lately at avoiding.”
“If you look at the first 40 [minutes], we had so many chances to get up in the scoring,” Letang said. “We didn’t, and in the third I think we got frustrated and kind of imploded, giving up chances.”
Goaltender Tristan Jarry didn’t come through with the big saves, either. He’s also been playing injured for most of the season, starting back in fall when he admitted he was working through an injury that was affecting his play. He left the Winter Classic Jan. 2 with a lower-body injury and has been in and out of the lineup ever since, and pulled in favor of backup Casey DeSmith on a few particularly rough nights.
GM Ron Hextall and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke failed to address the goaltending situation at the trade deadline. They also surrounded the Penguins’ top six with one of the worst bottom six forward groups in hockey and made roster decisions that have, to say the least, not aged well.
As the Penguins maneuvered to protect Jeff Carter, now 38, in the Seattle expansion draft, they elected to both trade Jared McCann, now 26, and expose Brandon Tanev, now 31. With both now playing for the Kraken, Tanev’s edgy presence is sorely missed, while McCann scored the 40th goal of his 70-point season Tuesday night. They let Evan Rodrigues, who would’ve been a significant bottom-six upgrade, walk in favor of the now-departed Kasperi Kapanen.
And when Hextall went looking for an add at the deadline, he chose to bring on Mikael Granlund, a once-skilled player who scored five points for Pittsburgh over 20 games and will cost $5 million against the salary cap for two seasons after this one.
The Penguins’ defensive corps tried to get bigger and tougher with the additions of Jeff Petry and Jan Rutta, but would likely look a whole lot better flipping back to younger, mobile puck-movers like Mike Matheson, now with the Canadiens, and John Marino, who went to the New Jersey Devils for prospect Ty Smith, buried in the AHL due to Pittsburgh’s poor salary cap management.
Even the highly regarded Sullivan, who dug in on roster decisions that weren’t working throughout the year in a way reminiscent of late-era Dan Bylsma, shouldn’t be immune to scrutiny. The Penguins aren’t a contender as currently constructed and, if someone from largely absentee ownership group Fenway Sports Group notices, Pittsburgh’s first non-playoff season in 17 years will present an opportunity for sweeping changes.
For now, though? Well, there’s still technically that 9.4% chance their season isn’t quite over.
“Hopefully we get a chance,” Crosby said. “We got an opportunity tonight to control our own destiny and it didn’t work out. It’s out of our hands now.”
“Obviously, we’re all going to be watching the scores tomorrow,” Jarry said. “Hopefully it goes in our favor and we’re still playing for something meaningful the next day.”