History will note that the 2014-15 Pittsburgh Penguins, entering the playoffs as a No. 8 seed decimated by injuries to four of its top six defensemen, lost in five games to the No. 1-seeded New York Rangers, this year’s Presidents’ Trophy winner and a clear Stanley Cup contender.
When the sting wears off, however, the Penguins and their fans might remember this postseason a little differently than the disappointments of years past.
A team that went into a month-long freefall down the stretch and snuck into the playoffs by beating the league’s worst team on the last day of the regular season found a way to compete within a goal of the Rangers for five consecutive games.
A defense that – due to a worst-case scenario of salary cap management and injuries – was forced to end the season playing five healthy bodies for 30-plus minutes a night, and entered the playoffs with a third pairing of AHL call-ups, helped the Penguins become only the third team in NHL history to limit the winner of a series to no more than two goals in all four wins.
A goaltender who, fairly or otherwise, took a lion’s share of blame for each playoff exit since the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup, whose excellent regular season was widely viewed as meaning little if he couldn’t get the team back to the promised land, allowed just 11 goals over five games, giving his club a chance in four losses – two of them in overtime – where they could only support him with a single goal.
That netminder took the loss perhaps hardest of any Penguin.
“We played a good team and we hung in there every night,” Marc-Andre Fleury said. “We kept it close but, at the end of the day, we still lost.”
They lost because the Rangers were simply deeper, faster and better, with the series-winning goal from Carl Hagelin providing a fitting exclamation point of how New York exploited its speed advantage throughout the series.
“He has that extra gear to go extra periods,” the Rangers’ J.T. Miller, a Pittsburgh native, said of Hagelin. “He uses his quickness to get out of the corner, and that’s all the separation it is. It’s just a good, hardworking shift by everybody, getting pucks to the net, and he was able to get a little bit of space.”
The Penguins also lost because their offense could never recoup from the loss of puck-moving defensemen like Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff and Derrick Pouliot – and that’s not even mentioning Olli Maatta, out for nearly the entire season – forcing Pittsburgh to try in vain to adapt a system that relied on them heavily.
“It’s tough,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “We’re missing some guys all year, and to really get rhythm as far as team identity and the role of guys, we probably struggled with that a bit. Not using that as an excuse by any means but, that being said, we still found a way to get ourselves in the playoffs and definitely had opportunities to win the series and change the outcome.
“Usually you go through a span of injuries and you get through it, you’re able to kind of settle in, and we didn’t ever really get through it. We went through it all year, right until the end of the playoffs, and that’s difficult. But everyone played extremely hard; [Fleury] gave us a chance to win every night. The way we worked in this series – they’re a good team with a lot of depth, and we were a goal here or there away from being on a different side of it.”
Without finding a way to generate more offense, the Penguins were left with no margin for error.
“It’s hard to really absorb it right now,” Crosby said. “Every game was kind of different. The first one, we were a bit tentative. The second one was definitely our game to win and we played really [well] and then, after that, both teams grabbed momentum for different parts of each game. Tonight, we could’ve easily been going back to Pittsburgh down 3-2 but, again, we were on the wrong side of that one.
“It’s too bad; we did some really good things defensively throughout the series and [Fleury] was great. Being that close every game, a one-goal swing either way, it’s tough.”
To the Rangers, coming out on the right end of all four 2-1 games underscored the makeup of a team with lofty goals on its mind.
“It goes back to character and [having] the right players on this team,” said Hagelin, sporting a bloody, bruised eye under the Broadway Hat he wore for being selected the game MVP by his teammates. “Everyone wants to win and everyone’s ready to do whatever it takes. It’s not about scoring goals; it’s about playing well defensively and playing smart hockey, and the goals are going to come.”
With the exception of a four-goal outburst in Game 2, the offense never came for the Penguins. In a year filled with significant injuries, illnesses and transitions, however – from general managers to coaches to players – Pittsburgh’s play against the Rangers was worthy of respect.
Even with the sting of elimination still fresh, some Penguins were able to see that.
“We played the first(-place) team in the league and we played well,” Fleury said. “We’ve had a lot, our share of injuries and crazy stuff for a team. We were missing a lot of defensemen for the playoffs, but everybody that was in battled hard and tried to give their best every night and give us a chance.”
“I don’t think we have anything to hang our heads about [regarding] the way we played,” said center Brandon Sutter. “I’m sure there will be lots of talk about [offseason changes] but, as players, we’re not going to worry about that. We know we’ve got a good group here and, unfortunately, it ended a little too soon.”