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Winning in the NHL, it’s really hard

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On the Penguins, Maple Leafs and how tough endings setup difficult futures

Toronto Maple Leafs fall to the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 in game seven in the first round of the NHL play-offs Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

A quote from Mike Sullivan on Friday stood out as he was giving an instant analysis on the season.

“There’s so much that I’m proud of this group for,” Sullivan said. “Having said that, we’re all disappointed that we’re not still playing hockey. I think the takeaway is that it’s hard to win in this league.”

On one hand, that could be cliche and empty speak at this time of year. A coach has to say that, right? Well, sure, but that also doesn’t make it untrue.

The Penguins bowed out as a top seed of the East division. Last night, fellow Northern top seed Toronto lost in a Game 7. In the Central, top seed Carolina took a Game 7 win to advance. Higher seeds in Washington and Edmonton won a grand total of one combined playoff game in other upsets in the first round.

Sullivan’s sentiment is correct — it is difficult to win in the NHL. Sheer numbers say that only 25% of teams in the league win one round of the playoffs. 15 teams in the playoffs finish their season with a loss.

It’s a tough game that strikes every team. With the Pens, Capitals and Blues out in the first round, that represents the champions from 2016-19, not too distant of the past. The 2020 champs in Tampa are still alive, but even they now as playoff powerhouses were often decried for falling short of their potential and seemingly forever cast in the perennial bridesmaid’s role. The Lightning lost to eventual Stanley Cup champions in 2011, 2015, 2016 and 2018 and always were the team on the brink who couldn’t win it....Until they did.

A similar story happened in Washington. The Capitals won the President’s Trophy in 2010, 2016 and 2017. They won their division seven times in the 10 seasons from 2008-17 but failed to win two rounds of playoff games in any of those seasons. From every mountaintop, all the shouts were that an era of such promise was over, leaving an unfulfilled legacy...Until of course they won the Cup the next season when almost no one expected them to do so.

Few want to hear it, but the line between winning and losing in the playoffs is so thin. It took the Pens’ an overtime goal in Game 6 to beat Washington in 2016, and a Game 7 with Marc-Andre Fleury almost literally dragging an inferior skilled team in 2017. One or either of those series could have easily gone the other way. In that case, history is a lot different from where we sit now.

The Penguins won in 2016 and 2017, but in the years before and after have not gotten such breaks. “Survive and advance” is usually a term associated with the NCAA basketball tournament, but it applies a lot of ways to the NHL playoffs as well.

There are banners in Pittsburgh and Washington and Tampa, teams that finally got enough bites at the apple and found a way to get it done. There are so such recent banners in places like San Jose and Toronto. There are only so many success stories that can happen, and the cruel twist of the NHL world is that there will always be more left wanting than those celebrating.

The Maple Leafs no doubt face the biggest existential crisis. While Penguin fans will uncomfortably bemoan three straight first round exits, Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004! Under the hottest media spotlight in the hockey world and with a solid, though top-loaded, team they have found new ways to painfully blow games and series over the better part of two decades.

It will be a tough summer in places like Pittsburgh and Toronto, who wanted more out of their seasons and came up short. There will be clamor for change and improvement to seek a better result.

Unfortunately though, the sheer numbers say that most are doomed to not get that better result. It is very difficult to win in the playoffs in the NHL, which is why teams and fanbases really have to savor the moments when it does happen. The Penguins’ young core admitted that after success in 2008 and 2009, they subconsciously came to figure that yearly playoff success was going to be the default. A rude awakening followed. After the mid-career boost a few years ago, they’ve been forced to re-learn a lesson that they already knew well. It’s tough to make that climb up the mountain that is the grind of the NHL playoffs.

The nature of the sport between random bounces, injuries, officiating decisions, hot or cold goaltending make seven game series into basic coin flips in the modern NHL. Teams are often fairly evenly matched in this era of parity. Almost any team can beat another, and what makes hockey so great, yet so maddening, is often that is precisely what happens.

Where do you go if you’re Pittsburgh or Toronto or any other team that lost in the first round this year that aspires to do more (so, basically all of them)? It’s a fascinating aspect of the sport. Some will change personnel, perhaps others coaches and tactics. Strategies will be tweaked, all in hope for the best the next time around.

As proven by Pittsburgh, Washington, St. Louis and Tampa in the past five years, really all a team can do is just keep qualifying for the playoffs and getting as many cracks at glory as possible. In the unpredictable world of the NHL there’s no magic formula to success, just the unforgiving nature of the format and playoff world that ensures every year there will be a lot more heartbreak and heartache at the end for the majority of the teams.