The end of the 2013-14 season for the Penguins was a tough pill to swallow. It’s always hard to take a step back and look at the team you’re a fan of and accept that they’re flawed, and that they were a disaster.
Coaches were fired, a general manager was fired. These things aren’t supposed to happen to a team that won the Stanley Cup so early in it’s plan. Multiple Cups were supposed to have been won. Instead, we’re starting a new chapter in the book, with Jim Rutherford at the helm.
Mike Johnston is the new coach. We’ve got new players scattered through the lineup. What should we expect at this point? The run-and-gun offense that we heard so much about from Johnston’s time in Portland? We would find out soon.
During the 2014-15 season, the Penguins left a lot to be desired. They weren’t great, they weren’t poor. They were just, kind of there — which can sum up Mike Johnston’s tenure as head coach of the Penguins.
Rutherford would make some moves, acquiring David Perron from the Edmonton Oilers for a first-round pick, swapped Robert Bortuzzo for Ian Cole, and swapped Marcel Goc for Maxim Lapierre.
They would nearly back into the playoffs, and almost missed entirely after losing 5 of their last 6 games to finish the season, when they needed to win just one or two games to lock into a playoff spot.
They’d limp into the playoffs with an injury-riddled lineup. They were without the services of Kris Letang, wrecked by Shane Doan late in the season on a dirty, reckless, and unnecessary play.
Peak Shane Doan, if you ask me.
Christian Ehrhoff went out with injury right at the point where LTIR wasn’t an option, with 9 games remaining. This forced the Penguins hand in terms of roster spots, and down the stretch and in some playoff games, they had to play with 5 defensemen only! That’s a thing that happened! For Christ’s sake, what a time to be alive.
The God Damn Rangers, Again
Heading into the playoffs, nothing felt good or even remotely optimistic. The Pens had drawn into the final wild-card spot, and were happy to just make the playoffs at all. By doing so in that wild-card spot, the drew the Presidents’ Trophy winning, 113-point New York Rangers.
Despite all of their flaws as a team, the Penguins hung as tight as they could. They would come away from Madison Square Garden after Games 1 & 2 with a series split 1-1. That felt like best-case scenario, given the circumstances.
The next three games were just exhausting. Purely exhausting is the only way to fully describe it.
In Game 3, back at home, the Rangers took a 2-0 lead before Patric Hornqvist got the Penguins on the board. They just couldn’t get that second one to tie the game.
Oddly enough, the most memorable thing to happen in this game and series would take place off of the ice, when Jim Rutherford laid into at-the-time Trib columnist Rob Rossi.
“Thanks for your support,” Rutherford said repeatedly.
“You're a (expletive) jerk,” Rutherford said repeatedly.
Rutherford followed the jerk comment with a suggestion to “go sell ice cream now,” then a challenge to look him in the eye, which I did while explaining my role as Trib Total Media's lead sports columnist.
My role is to provide opinion.
“Well, your opinion is (expletive),” Rutherford said.
What a moment for the old grizzly GM. Losing one-goal playoff games are exhausting for fans, so I can imagine how much more exhausting they are for players, coaches, and management. Not to excuse that kind of behavior, but how amusing at least.
Game 4, a tied game going to overtime. Kevin Hayes made it quick and (not) painless for us. At least it didn’t go on all night in agony.
Game 5, back to New York. The Penguins put 38 shots on Henrik Lundqvist.
Before they could get more than 1 goal past him, Carl Hagelin, noted Penguins killer, took the series for the Rangers.
Three games in a row, all 2-1 losses. In fact, all four games in the series that the Penguins lost were by a score of 2-1. This might have been the closest 5-game series loss that I recall seeing.
One of the biggest issues facing the Penguins in the playoffs over a several year stretch — goaltending. Not an issue this time. Marc-Andre Fleury saved 139 shots out of a possible 150 faced. He put up a save percentage of 92.67% in the series. A few bounces either way and this series is so different.
My biggest takeaway that I can remember is what a force Ian Cole was for the Penguins. We had just traded for the guy at the deadline, and I wasn’t really sure what we were getting.
The guy gave all he had, playing with 5 defenseman, well above what his ceiling as a player is at, and he killed it.
Even with as humbling of a series loss as this was, there was some semblance of feeling like the Penguins were doing something right and the process was forming. It didn’t feel like ‘same old Penguins.’ In a way, it felt better that they just flat out weren’t good enough and got beaten, instead of beating themselves.
The process would keep working over the next year, and the Penguins would put themselves in position to get back to glory.