After the Penguins flamed out of the 2013 playoffs in dramatic fashion, scoring 2 goals in 4 games, while being swept by the Boston bruins, many people expected changes to come within the organization.
The opposite happened.
Ray Shero gave Dan Bylsma a contract extension.
He gave Chris Kunitz a four-year contract extension. He gave Pascal Dupuis a four-year contract extension. He signed Rob Scuderi to a four-year contract. EVERYONE GETS A FOUR YEAR CONTRACT!
In retrospect, this was what seemed like beyond a repairable situation, and we would find that out within a years time. It didn’t seem as drastic at the time, but now, thinking about it, how is it ever acceptable to award people with contract extensions after they failed miserably?
This Penguins team would represent the epitome of top-heavy and bottom-terrible.
Today’s #Pens lines: Glass-Crosby-Stempniak, Jokinen-Malkin-Vitale, Goc-Sutter-Adams, Pyatt-Gibbons-Megna.— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) March 16, 2014
A lineup riddled with scrubs, such as Chris Conner, Brian Gibbons, Andrew Ebett, Taylor Pyatt, Zach Sill, and Joe Vitale were seeing regular ice time. PROBLEMATIC.
In spite of management, this Penguins team, with that lineup, managed to win 51 games, logging 109 points in the process, and finishing the season in 1st place in the Metropolitan division -- perhaps Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s greatest feats as Penguins, considering the trash heaps that surrounded them.
A new playoff foe
For only the second season from the time the Pens started their playoff run in 2006-07, they would not face the Senators or the Flyers. Their opponent: the Columbus Blue Jackets
Early in the series, it became evident that the Penguins defense was leaky and keeping pucks out of their net was going to be an issue. They were able to score goals, but nearly every game in the series featured 3 or 4 goals per team.
Brandon Sutter would give the Penguins a 1-0 series lead with a 3rd period goal in Game 1.
In Game 2, the Penguins would blow a 3-1 lead. It would not be their last blown 3-1 lead of this playoffs, but we’ll get back to that later. An agonizing loss in 2OT with a Matt Calvert goal sent the series back to Columbus tied 1-1.
Things weren’t looking great for the Pens in Game 3, but they came from behind in the third period with three goals from Brandon Sutter, Lee Stempniak, and Jussi Jokinen to pull off a 4-3 win to take the series lead.
Game 4 still makes me sick to think about it. A 3-1 lead after the first period that couldn’t be protected. The Blue Jackets just chipped away little by little. Ryan Johansen in the second period. A 3-2 lead with under a minute to play and then this happened.
I still can’t believe that happened. To that point, after Fleury’s playoff disappointments in 2012 against the Flyers and 2013 against the Islanders, it felt like this might be the last straw for him and the end. Kudos to Fleury, Mike Bales, & Co. for sticking with it and working through this mishap and not letting it snowball. Nick Foligno would go on to win the game for Columbus in OT — which felt like a guarantee after letting the game be tied that late.
After losing Game 4, it kind of felt like the Penguins flipped a switch, saying “We know we’re better than this team and need to stop messing around.” They showed that with their Game 5 victory with a 3-1 score, the first game they hadn’t allowed at least 3 goals in the series.
Game 6, back in Columbus, and the Penguins switch flipped back to the off position -- temporarily at least. The Penguins stormed out to a 4-0 lead through 2 periods, including a hat trick from Evgeni Malkin. What happened next? 3 straight goals for the god damn Blue Jackets. 5 minutes left to play and a 4-3 lead. Unbelievable.
The Pens would hold on to win the game and series, but give me a break. I truly believe that if the Penguins had lost Game 6 they would have gone on to lose Game 7 as well.
At this point, it felt like the Penguins had no happy medium. Against the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final a year prior, they scored 2 goals in 4 games. Now, five of the six games in the series ended by a score of 4-3. After that Bruins loss still lingering, winning this series didn’t feel like a sense of joy, but a sense of relief, in a way.
It was a 3-1 lead.
The New York Rangers. The series that would end a coaching and management era for the Penguins.
Game 1 of the series started very poorly, with the Rangers jumping out to a 2-0 lead, but the Penguins would rally back to tie it and send it to overtime....where Derick Brassard quickly won it for New York.
At this point, this was the 5th Penguins playoff game that they lost when it went to overtime. They were just starting to feel like inevitable losses as soon as the game went to the extra frame.
The Penguins would rectify the situation, and what felt like the series when they responded by winning Games 2 & 3, both with a shutout. They would win Game 4 in New York as well, with the series about to be won, and another trip to the Eastern Conference Final was on the horizon.
Then Martin St. Louis’ mother died. He flew back to Pittsburgh for Game 5 of the series and the Rangers rallied around it. A 5-1 blowout in Game 5 and the collars around Pittsburgh started tightening.
Game 6, back at Madison Square Garden, on Mother’s Day. And who scores the opening goal just over 3 minutes into the game? Martin St. Louis. For god’s sake.
You can’t make this shit up. It felt like a literal balloon being popped. You knew the Pens were cooked in that game. May as well close up shop now, and hope for the best in Game 7 against Henrik Lundqvist.
Everyone in the god damn city knew the Penguins were going to lose Game 7. I knew it. Everyone knew it. I tried to talk myself into the belief that they’d win it and break the streak of Game 7 losses at home in the playoffs, but in the back of our minds, we knew it.
Brad Richards gives the Rangers a 2-1 lead on the power-play in the 2nd period, and that’s all she wrote.
The Penguins would put 36 shots on Lundqvist, but because he’s Lundqvist, the Pens are frustrated out of the series, they just blew a 3-1 lead, and their surefire lock of yet another Eastern Conference Final appearance — long gone.
The Penguins had just lost their 4th Game 7 in a row at home. That’s unbelievable, yet highly believable at the same time. It was all over.
Three days later, Ray Shero was fired as GM of the Penguins. Many believed and reported that both Shero and Dan Bylsma were to be fired that day, but only Shero went at first. The Penguins left Bylsma to sit on his hands until the new GM would decide his fate.
The Penguins search for a new General Manager would end approximately 3 weeks later, when Jim Rutherford was hired. His first task and duty as GM was to fire Dan Bylsma. His next task, which would appear to be fairly daunting -- rebuild the Penguins broken team, and do so in a hurry. They didn’t have time for a full-scale rebuild. Crosby and Malkin were coming out of their primes and the Pens needed to maximize that.
Rutherford would have a busy summer ahead of him. From finding a new head coach -- Mike Johnston, the former Portland Winterhawks head coach, to making player personnel moves. He would ship James Neal out of town at the 2014 NHL Draft, acquiring Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling in the process. He would make several free agency signings, bringing in players like Christian Ehrhoff, Blake Comeau, and Steve Downie. The Penguins roster picture, just that quickly over the summer, would start to change.
Like it or not, the Penguins series loss to the Rangers was the start of a rebuild that the team desperately needed. If the series had gone back and forth, one game after another, without a blown lead, perhaps this change doesn’t happen. It’s hard to say, but we would find out the following year that the rebuild-on-the-fly didn’t happen overnight and the team would need some more tweaking.