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Post-mortem: What went wrong for the Penguins in their series against the Caps

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The king is dead, long live the king. We dig into how and why the Pittsburgh Penguins lost a series to the Washington Capitals in 2018

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The wound is fresh but the fact remains the same, the Pittsburgh Penguins 2017-18 season is over. At the hands of the Washington Capitals, no less. Quite a surprising turn of events have led us to this point, so how did we get here?

Game 1: In a sign of things to come, the Pens fell behind 2-0 early in the 2nd period. In this game, they found a way to rally, courtesy of their top line, with all of Patric Hornqvist, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel scoring rapid fire goals to earn a 3-2 win. Without that outburst, though, they were in a hole and not looking too great. Still, a win on the road to open the series is never a bad thing and nothing appeared wrong at this point.

Game 2: The first period of G2 might have been the Pens worst of the playoffs. They were outshot 20-10 and outscored 2-0, which could have been even larger still if not for Matt Murray making a few saves and the Caps missing the net on a few more chances. Still, they were essentially out of this game from the beginning and dropped a 4-1 loss to even the series.

Game 3: The series shifted to Pittsburgh where the Pens where 30-9-1 on the season (best in the league) and also 24-0-2 when leading after two periods. Which is exactly where they found themselves up 3-2 going into the 3rd. Evgeni Malkin was also back for his first game of the series. Things were looking up, until Malkin hit the post, the Caps took the puck the other way and Matt Niskanen scored on a routine shot from the point on Murray with less than 5 minutes left. The Caps took the series lead when Olli Maatta turned the puck over, got tripped by Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin scored on a 2-on-1 with just over a minute left in regulation to give the Caps a 4-3 win.

In hindsight, Game 3 was a major series turning point. The Caps gained a ton of confidence from a late comeback, stole home ice back and won a game it looked like they would lose mid-way through the 3rd period.

Game 4: A great bounce-back by the Pens. They won 3-1 and only allowed 3 third period shots on goal while protecting a one goal lead until Jake Guentzel scored his second goal of the game on an empty net in the game’s closing moments. If Pittsburgh could have had this type of effort in the 3rd period of G3, they would have been up 3 games to 1. Instead, the series shifted back to Washington tied 2-2. The Pens were still in decent shape, but their mis-step in G3 made this an even series.

Game 5: The Caps jumped up to a 2-1 lead after the 1st period, but then Pittsburgh hit them with their best period of the whole series in the 2nd. Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist scored goals. Shots were 18-5 Pens. 5v5 scoring chances were 10-4 Pens. High danger chances were 7-1 Pens. And yet, they only scored two goals in the period and couldn’t totally bust the game open. Still, they took another 3-2 lead into the 3rd period- just like Game 3.

And just like G3, the Pens would blow it. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored on a breakaway after a defensive breakdown (hmm) under a minute into the period and the Caps erased the Pens best shot at them just like that. Still, a tie game is a chance but the Caps score again with under 5 minutes left on another odd man rush, this time Jakub Vrana doing the honors to win the crucial Game 5.

Game 6: Absent Nicklas Backstrom (hurt hand in Game 5) the Caps were content to sit back and counter-punch all night, waiting for the Pens to slip up and try to pounce. They were able to do that, with Alex Chiasson scoring off the rush for the game’s first score. The Pens were able to respond, with Kris Letang scoring off a set faceoff win by Crosby to tie the game.

The tightly contested game spilled into overtime but it would be Kuznetsov the hero, scoring a goal very similar to G5, getting a pass from Alex Ovechkin and exploiting another Pens defensive miscue to score on another breakaway.

Takeaways

  • It’s a thin line between winning and losing. Of the 6 games of this series, the Pens held leads in 4 different 3rd periods, and were tied throughout the 3rd period of Game 6. These were close games and four of them were easily winnable. Teams that move on in the playoffs tend to win those games. Teams that go home tend to lose.
  • This year, Pittsburgh lost Game 3 and 5, and they simply needed to win at least one of those given the way the way both played out. If this was a more charmed year when more plays, bounces, calls, saves, injuries were going the Pens way, they may have won both of them. Alas, they couldn’t make it happen.
  • Disappointingly, Pittsburgh went 1-2 at home in the series (and 2-4 overall in the playoffs). Simply not good enough, especially for the league’s best home team.
  • 10 of the 13 forwards in this series for the Penguins didn’t score a goal. 7 of them didn’t even have a point. That’s brutal to have secondary scoring completely dry up. There may be some reason for that (Malkin, Hagelin and Kessel among others were all banged up), but there’s just no excuse for all the players to be so quiet. To get virtually nothing out of players like Bryan Rust, Derick Brassard, Conor Sheary and Riley Sheahan is a big reason the Pens got eliminated.
  • On the flip-side, the Capitals dressed 15 different forwards and 12 of them had at least a point. 9 different forwards had goals. In the past, it was Pittsburgh’s depth players scoring key goals (think Bonino, Hagelin, Cullen, etc). This year, it was Washington with guys like Vrana, Connolly, Chiasson all scoring key goals. (h/t: TPP)
  • Hopefully the brilliance of Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby won’t be lost. Patric Hornqvist too. All three of them brought it every game and every shift and had terrific playoffs.
  • Brian Dumoulin really blossomed too, even more than a guy who has been top pair on the last two Cup winning teams could. He looked very confident in all three zones of the ice, skated the puck well, jumped in the play more than ever, kept Ovechkin relatively quiet at even strength. Great performance by him.

The stun of the playoff exit hasn’t quite yet worn off, but that’s OK time will help on that. There’s plenty more to discuss and look back on about the entire season, but we wanted to dive into what happened and went wrong with the Pens series against the Caps and take a post-mortem of this team “while the body was still warm”.

In a nutshell, the Pens blew two late leads and were a little too sloppy on defense and didn’t get as many saves as the other end of the ice. Their scoring dried up save a select few players and the opposition was able to generate a more productive and balanced attack. Add it all up and a bunch of close games didn’t break Pittsburgh’s way this year.