Six years ago, the Penguins held a 3-1 series advantage over the New York Rangers in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and were a victory away from advancing to their second straight Eastern Conference Finals.
Instead of advancing, the Penguins dropped the next three games and were eliminated from the playoffs after a Game 7 loss on home ice. It was a result that changed the fortunes of the Penguins franchise, even if the results were not immediate.
Ray Shero was fired in the days following and replaced by Jim Rutherford as general manager. Rutherford came in and removed head coach Dan Bylsma from his post, bringing in Mike Johnston to take over. Rutherford also traded away goal scorer James Neal in exchange for Patric Hornqvist, a move which began a total philosophical rehaul of the team.
The next season was ugly, but a necessary stepping stone to get the Penguins to where Jim Rutherford wanted them. Rutherford spent the 2015 offseason making more moves, including adding Phil Kessel to the mix. Johnston was eventually replaced by Mike Sullivan in December 2015 and the rest is history with Pittsburgh going on to be the first back-to-back Stanley Cup champion in the salary cap era in 2016 and 2017.
In the long run, the Penguins collapse against the Rangers in 2014 turned out to be a blessing in disguise, but how differently would the franchise look today had that 2014 squad found a way to get one more win against the Rangers?
Let’s hop in our time machine and head back to May 2014 and imagine the Penguins win either Game 5, Game 6, or Game 7 to eliminate the Rangers.
(Remember, the Rangers were the eventual Eastern Conference champions this season.)
A victory over the Rangers sends the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Finals for a date with the Montreal Canadiens. On paper, the Penguins would have been heavy favorites to defeat the Canadiens and move on to the Stanley Cup Final.
(The Rangers easily brushed aside the Canadiens in five games.)
At this point, unless they get absolutely embarrassed by the Canadiens, it’s probably safe to assume a second straight conference finals appearance is enough to secure the jobs of Shero and Bylsma for another year. A trip to the Stanley Cup Final removes any doubt the regime is remains in place.
Now let’s assume the Penguins do in fact dispatch the Canadiens and are crowned Eastern Conference champions for the second time under Dan Bylsma. This puts them into the Stanley Cup Final where the Los Angeles Kings await.
That season, the Kings topped 100 points but had to settle for third in the Pacific division behind the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, two teams they defeated on their road to the Final. In the first round, they came back from a 3-0 series deficit against the Sharks then survived another seven game slugfest against the Ducks.
In fact, even their victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals went the distance. Coming in to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, the Kings had played the maximum 21 games to that point.
(Their five game victory over the Rangers in the Final was their shortest series of that playoffs and in the end they played a grand total of 26 games.)
Even though the Kings finished third in their own division, they were an excellent hockey team that season. A much better version of themselves who won the Stanley Cup just two years prior. Their style of play would have been an extremely difficult matchup for the Penguins. The Kings would have entered the series the favorites, behind the goaltending performance of Jonathan Quick, who was as reliable and strong as any goalie ever was in that era of the playoffs from 2012-14. Quick posted 41 wins over those three playoff seasons, with a combined .928 save%, 8 shutouts and 2.01 GAA and a “really good start” percentage of 68.8%, when anything over 60.0% is considered impressive.
(For reference, the Kings were clearly the better team in the 2014 Final, but three of the five games took overtime to decide, including two that went multiple OT.)
Regardless of how a potential Penguins/Kings series may have played out that season, there is no doubt the Penguins would not have made wholesale changes to their front office and coaching staff in 2014.
How this changes the long term future of the Penguins is pretty clear. Shero and Bylsma remain in charge for at least another season. That likely means no Jim Rutherford in Pittsburgh which dominos into no Mike Sullivan, no Patric Hornqvist, no Phil Kessel, and potentially no back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.
It’s impossible to say what our reality today could have been had the Penguins never collapsed against the Rangers in 2014, but one can assume it may not have been as successful as what we have experienced since then.
Losing that series to the Rangers in 2014 hurt in many ways and it was clear change was necessary if the Penguins were ever going to fulfill their potential. Even the struggles of 2015 had many questioning if it this era of Penguins hockey could ever live up to its billing. Luckily, Rutherford pulled the right strings and two new banners hang from the roof at PPG Paints Arena.
In the end, it turns out patience really is a virtue, and the collapse of 2014 helped propel the Penguins franchise to new heights, even if the results were not promising right out of the gate.