The Pittsburgh Penguins unceremoniously bumbled their way out of the bubble in Toronto on Friday, losing to the Montreal Canadiens. Hockey is a complex sport, and the times have never been more unusual than they are right now, so there isn’t just one reason for why this came to be.
And there are no shortage of culprits that came together to bump the Pens on out. With emotions still a bit high in the immediate fall-out, let’s survey the Pensburgh field as to what chiefly was to blame for the Pens’ elimination.
Mike Sullivan’s pre-game lineup choices - We’ll start at the top. Coach Mike Sullivan didn’t cover himself in glory with how he setup the Penguins. He used the same six defensemen all series. He started with Matt Murray when Tristan Jarry had a better season. Sullivan didn’t scratch Patrick Marleau, despite having no real reason to play the fading veteran.
It’s easy to second guess and Monday morning quarterback a coach using hindsight when the decisions don’t pan out, but many (if not all) of these decisions not working out was widely predicted and even expected by the fanbase.
Mike Sullivan’s in-game coaching decisions - Let’s stick with a different aspect of the coaching angle for Sullivan’s actual coaching while the game was unfolding. Sullivan never attempted to use Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin together at even strength to give the team a boost. Sullivan didn’t really even shorten his bench down to the final whistle, just faithfully rolling clearly ineffective players like Marleau until the bitter end. Sullivan couldn’t figure out power play personnel (not having Patric Hornqvist with the top group, despite a clear history of the PP struggling when Hornqivst has been injured).
Carey Price - Sometimes you have to tip your cap to the other guys, too. A big reason the Pens lost was that the Canadiens deserve credit for playing well. No one was better than their goalie, who posted a .947 save% in four games. That’s nothing new, NYI’s Robin Lehner defeated the Pens’ in the 2019 first round playoffs with a .956 save%. Credit to the Habs, but the Pens also helped make them look good by not getting enough follow-up chances, failing to convert on power plays.
The Pens didn’t make many passes through the middle, weren’t able to use the royal road to generate dangerous shots. When they did (think Guentzel to Crosby, Malkin to Hornqvist, Sheary to Zucker) they had some success and scored goals. But too often they let Price read the play, get set at the top of the crease and square to the shot. They asked him to make a lot of saves, and he did just that, making the majority of them look routine. The Pens never really made Price scramble and pull off clear “robbery” many times, he was able to see what was coming, he’s a good goalie and stopped what he saw. Which was pretty much everything that the Pens threw at him.
The stars didn’t score enough - Come playoff time the big players have to come through. Pittsburgh’s didn’t. Evgeni Malkin had no goals and only one assist in four games. Sidney Crosby started hot, but faded and only registered one assist in the last two games (both losses). Jake Guentzel only scored one goal, into an empty net with 9 seconds left in Game 2. Kris Letang didn’t have a point. The Pens’ formula to win is going to require the big players stepping up. None of them had a great week, and unsurprisingly the team is now wondering what happened as they head home.
Depth players didn’t work - The Pens’ third line was awful. Marleau was on ice for just 32.6% of the Corsi events, and no goals for and four goals against. Jared McCann was in the crucial third line center role and played his way into being a healthy scratch by Game 3 and did almost nothing positive in the games he did play. The Pens’ vaunted fourth line, which had suppressed goals against all season were on ice for three goals together, and only one goal for. Conor Sheary setup two goals in Game 2, but had no points in all three losses. Hornqvist only scored one power play goal and did little at even strength.
About the only players you can’t point a finger at would be Bryan Rust (1G+2A) and Jason Zucker (2G), who were as good and productive of players that the Pens had. But even they were quiet and couldn’t score in Game 4.
Jack Johnson / Justin Schultz pair - While many offensive players were quiet, the group that actively hurt the team was their third pair defense. Johnson and Schultz were on ice for five goals a piece, and Montreal only scored nine goals total. It’s easy to do the math there and see it’s not adding up for success.
The pair was on ice for four goals together, and then one each separately, so when MTL scored, 6 out of the 9 times one of #3 or #4 were on the ice. In a short series, performances that stand out so negatively just sink teams. And most of the damage was centralized in Games 1 and 3, which were one-goal losses for Pittsburgh. The Johnson-Schultz pair was always seen as a potential disaster for the Pens, and it lived up to that billing in a predictable but still very costly manner.
Matt Murray - Matt Murray played strong in Games 1 and 2, but probably had a play or two he wish he could have back in Game 3. He was beaten badly to his far post on a wrap-around by Paul Byron. He didn’t seal off the top of the net for the game-winning goal by an unmarked Jeff Petry. When the opposing goalie is so sharp, there’s no margin of error. Murray made some errors and got replaced for Game 4. Given his overall performance (.914 save%, 2.50 GAA), there honestly isn’t too much to stack on the goalie here, but he still couldn’t match the level of play that Price did. And it’s not too often the best goalie in the series ends up losing that series when it’s all said and done.
Didn’t adapt to the bubble - There was no travel in these playoffs. No fans. Players lived in Toronto in the same hotel as their opponents. They often played the third game of the day on a rink and didn’t always have great ice. It was also only a best of five series. This was a very different circumstance, but the Pens didn’t seem to take to it, for whatever reason. Their energy seemed off, especially in a very lethargic Game 4 performance.
None of these are particularly valid or good excuses on why a team ought to lose. In fact, it’s more disappointing than anything that they couldn’t perform better. The circumstances were what they were, and they were the same for everyone. The Pens didn’t rise to the occasion, and that’s on them. But this whole weird setup — and make no mistakes it is a very weird setup — didn’t fit for them, or they weren’t able to make the most of it.
There’s certainly enough bites of the blame pie to go around, and truthfully all parties involved deserve to take a share of it. There wasn’t any one factor to point to as for why Pittsburgh lost, though of the above certainly some stand out as bigger reasons than others. It’ll be interesting to see what the fans are thinking was the leading contributing factor in a sea full of plenty of them.
The Penguins lost the series to Montreal and the biggest single factor was:
This poll is closed
Mike Sullivan’s lineup choices before the games
Mike Sullivan’s strategic decisions during the game
Carey Price’s strong performance
Their star players didn’t score enough
Their supporting players let them down
The Jack Johnson / Justin Schultz pair
Problems with adapting to the playoff format/bubble