Much like this opening-round playoff series, Game 5 between the Penguins and Rangers started off looking like it would be competitive.
But this Penguins team was too fast and too skilled for the Rangers to keep pace. Their special teams dominated. Even their 21-year-old rookie netminder managed to stand taller than the Rangers’ great, who once again heads into summer without the elusive Stanley Cup that would cap off his career.
“The last two [games], I didn’t have it in me to make the difference,” said Henrik Lundqvist who, incredibly, finished the last two games on the Rangers’ bench. “The way they created chances … you need to be extremely confident as a goalie to stop those types of shots and, these last two games, I wasn’t strong enough to do that.”
But Saturday’s 6-3 loss in Game 5, and the Rangers’ 4-1 defeat in the series, wasn’t on Lundqvist, who admitted he felt “a sense of hopelessness” against the team the Rangers had knocked out in each of the last two playoffs. “I think we played a team that was smarter, better and better goaltending.”
These are not the Penguins of the past two springs. In fact, only five players remain from last year’s team that lost to New York in five games.
“There’s been a lot” of change, said captain Sidney Crosby. “But I think, with that, you have to build during the year. And we went through a lot of adversity with a tough start, injuries throughout the whole entire year, and I think we learned a lot about this group along the way.
“I think we’re continuing to build, but we’ve come together, and different guys have stepped up at different points during the season. And I think that’s built a real strong belief in the dressing room.”
They’re also not the Penguins of earlier this season. Many would point to the hiring of head coach Mike Sullivan Dec. 12 as the turning point, but Crosby points to the entire month of March, when Pittsburgh went on a tear to rise from playoff-bubble team to the league’s hottest.
“I don’t know a specific moment but, obviously, the month of March was really important for us,” Crosby said. “We knew that, with the position we were in, we had to make up some ground. And it felt like we kept winning and we weren’t really moving that far.
“I thought we really found our game in that month, and had some really tough games as far as our opponents and responded really well. I think we built a lot of confidence from that.”
That confidence spans throughout the lineup – from 39-year-old veteran Matt Cullen, who scored a pair of goals in the series, to rookies like Bryan Rust, 23, who scored a pair in the series-clinching Game 5, and Conor Sheary, also 23, who brought so much speed and creativity every time he was on the ice that he earned a spot alongside Crosby.
“It’s really special for us,” Rust said. “Every game there’s a different one of us who’s stepping up, having a big game or making a big play. It’s nice, because we know we can contribute here.”
“I had the luxury of coaching them for a couple months [in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton] and saw how good they are and what they were able to accomplish at the American League level,” Sullivan said. “They’re all different in how they play, their strengths and weaknesses, but, to a man, every one of those kids who have come up here are real good players.
“When opportunities presented themselves for lineup positions at the NHL level, I knew these guys could do it. I knew they were capable and I believed in them; I trusted them. And I think you can see what I had the opportunity to see over the past two or three months. These guys have come up and they’ve made our team a better team. They help us win.”
In addition to the pleasant surprise of the young players, the veterans who were expected to step up did just that. Crosby led the team with eight points (3G, 5A). Evgeni Malkin, despite missing the first game of the series, finished just behind with seven (2G, 5A). Phil Kessel brought his wicked shot and speed to deliver six points (3G, 3A), while Kris Letang (1G, 4A), Patric Hornqvist (3G, 2A) and Nick Bonino (5A) put up five each.
It’s a mix that’s established a strong chemistry among the group.
“I think both [the veteran and young] groups have been good for each other,” Sullivan said. “I think we’ve got a great veteran leadership group to help these guys, but I also think these kids help the veteran guys with their enthusiasm and their energy, and just their approach and how they come to the rink every day. I think that’s infectious, and I know our core guys really like what these kids have brought to the table.”
The kids like what the veterans bring, too.
“It’s been unbelievable – just the little things he says here and there, little tips and how he carries himself,” Rust said of linemate Cullen. “It helps us young guys to see it and learn from it, and to learn from how hard he plays and how consistent he plays.”
With the exception of their 4-2 loss in Game 2, the Penguins were remarkably consistent throughout the series, from their difference-making special teams – the power play led all playoff teams with a 38.1 percent conversion rate, while the penalty kill ranked No. 5 at 89.5 percent – to goaltending.
Veteran backup Jeff Zatkoff started Games 1 and 2 before Murray was healthy enough to play 3, 4 and 5, and the pair etched their names in the NHL record books by becoming the first two netminders to win their playoff debuts in the same series. With No. 1 netminder Marc-Andre Fleury still sidelined with a concussion, the net is Murray’s, and his steadiness has just added to the team’s confidence.
“His demeanor and his preparation process, for a young guy, he really understands what it takes to be a pro,” Sullivan said. “He comes to the rink every day and controls what he can. His work ethic is really strong, and he has that daily approach I think is so necessary to success.
“And then in the games, he has a demeanor about him that he doesn’t let the ebbs and flows of the game affect him. He doesn’t get rattled if he lets in a goal that he thought he should’ve had. He just refocuses and he plays. And I think that’s a maturity that, [for] most young players, it takes time to develop, and Matt has that already. It didn’t take long to figure out this guy’s an NHL-caliber goalie.”
By dispatching the Rangers in five games, the Penguins accomplished much:
They didn’t give a playoff-tested team the chance to generate momentum, as they did in 2014 when New York came all the way back from a 3-1 series deficit.
They won a series on home ice for just the second time in the six-year history of the CONSOL Energy Center.
They gave themselves a chance to rest and heal – so important for players, like Malkin, who are playing through injuries – while the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers continue to battle for the right to face the Penguins in Round Two.
Their head coach is paying careful attention to that series as he scouts his club’s next opponent.