You probably don’t need me to tell you the Penguins have lost four straight playoff series, including three straight first rounds exits.
While it’s certainly true that winning is very difficult in the NHL this time of year, that still doesn’t take the sting off the Pens’ losses. Made doubly painful as the team scrambles to make even more championship runs in the twilight of the prime of the Sidney Crosby / Evgeni Malkin era. Those stars age deeper into their 30’s with each passing year, drawing the window that much closer to being closed.
The frustration mounts in many directions. Many are looking for a simple explanation to what is a very complex and random events that add up to NHL playoff hockey. It’s what makes for great theater, even if often very painful.
Some point quickly to blame that the Pens are too small, being as their high-end players didn’t convert chances into goals. That’s a simplistic and stylistic complaint that largely misses the mark. Crosby and Jake Guentzel combined for 36 shots on goal in the series against the Islanders last month. That’s six per game. They scored two total goals. Their size wasn’t a deterrent to fail to generate, the issue was the lack of conversion.
You can call it poor execution, plain bad luck, tip your hat to the other goalie (hey, he’s trying too!) and to a degree all of those factors are all in play. Tampa’s Brayden Point is generously listed at 5’10, he’s not too small to have scored eight goals in the first two rounds. Guentzel wasn’t any bigger or stronger when he scored 24 playoff goals in his first 37 career playoff games in 2017 and 2018.
Could Pittsburgh use more size, strength and toughness overall? Sure. It’s a game of large humans who need to be strong and tough, no team can ever really get enough and is always striving as to add those elements.
Beyond that, there’s a clear frustration built up that great goalies are disproportionately eliminating Pittsburgh. That the Pens keep losing to what should be inferior teams and have this random occurrence of standing on their heads and the sticks go cold. Buddy,,, what if I told you every team who loses in the playoffs thinks this (and for large portion is correct).
Our pals at Japers Rink tweeted this and it really stands out just how many Penguin goalies there are on here.
Now that I've inserted it, maybe I'll twist the knife... pic.twitter.com/vh10UFR8L3— Japers’ Rink (@JapersRink) June 8, 2021
In Pittsburgh, the narrative is just the dominance over the Capitals in the spring by sheer results. But perspective changes when you see it’s Tom Barrasso, Ken Wreggett, Ron Tugnutt and Johan Hedberg all really standing on their heads out of no where. And that doesn’t even include Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury who were also spectacular in recent years, but weren’t statistical outliers for their career.
That chart also speaks to the thin line between winning and losing. Take 2001. Pens/Caps went to OT of Game 6 before it was decided. Five of the six games were decided by a one-goal margin. Can’t get much closer than that, and the Pens got there with a .938 save% goalie (Washington’s Olaf Kolzig had a .908 save% that round).
The Caps lost in 2001 (like other years) because it TOOK that sensational goalie effort to beat them. If Hedberg allowed two or three more goals, Pittsburgh well could have lost. If the other goalie wasn’t so good....the Caps would have won in 2001, just as the Pens would have beaten Montreal in 2010 or 2020 or NYI in 2021 on a very slight margin of close games breaking wrong and the dust settling to see a great goalie performance on the other side,
Today in Washington, they’re bemoaning (for good reason) how Tuukka Rask put up a .941% total save percentage and a +2.98 goals saved above average against the Caps in Round 1. Now he has only a .906 save% and -0.97 GSAA so far against the Islanders in the second round.
Fittingly for two franchises that find themselves so often intertwined, the way Boston/NYI is unfolding is a shared pain in Pittsburgh. NYI’s Ilya Sorokin had a similar to Rask stats of a .943 save% and 3.01 GSAA against the Pens, only to be benched early in the Boston series. To make matters worse, the goalie having success and beating the Bruins right now, Semyon Varlamov, is the same one that the Pens lit up. That’s simply maddening!
In fairness, credit to the Islanders where it is due. Yet there’s also no doubt right now they’re getting just about all the bounces, and (much to B’s coach Bruce Cassidy’s dismay) a lot of the calls in both directions. And they’ve switched goalies five different times already, and it’s working! Pretty much everything that could go right is going right for them.
That is all not to say the Islanders are unworthy, they’re making their own luck by converting, we all know they play a dogged, smart, hard, tough, blah, blah style. And they have two really good goalies, which is a credit to them for their roster building, coaching and playing.
Speaking of unworthy, the Montreal Canadiens will be in the final four of the Stanley Cup playoffs. They fired their coach in February and this wasn’t a Pittsburgh “new coach comes in and turns it all around” situation, the new coach had a 15-16-7 record in the regular season. That led to headlines into April and May on EOTP such as: “Dominque Ducharme’s baffling decisions cost the Canadiens” and “I have no idea what this Canadiens team is anymore”. Not promising.
And then, this happened:
Pens’ fans don’t need that reminder, Price was absolutely brilliant against Pittsburgh in the 2020 playoff bubble, carrying perhaps an “inferior” team to an upset.
Montreal was in a favorable spot in the weak Canadian division, and benefited from key losses to opponents John Tavares’ unfortunate scary injury and Mark Scheifele yeeting himself into a suspension. That just shows the nature of the total unpredictability of the NHL playoffs. No one could have foreseen Toronto and Winnipeg losing a stud star center early, yet it happened.
Does Toronto win if they have Tavares instead of losing in seven games? Does the whole series change for Winnipeg if they have Scheifele? We’ll never know, but it’s just more playoff losers that will wallow in the frustration of what could have been.
Winnipeg also offers a very interesting case study of flying sky high one round, only to suddenly and drastically see it all go wrong.
#WeAreWPG 2021 Playoff Splits:— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) June 8, 2021
First 4 Games
4-0, 14 Goals For, 8 Goals Against & 30.0 PP%
Last 4 Games
0-4, 6 Goals For, 14 Goals Against & 0.0 PP%
OK, we have pretty well established that goalies, injuries, bounces, calls and power plays can all come together in a strange and important mix that will smile or frown on a team tremendously in short playoff series.
But what about the valid and real problem the Pens’ have had lately about scoring goals come playoff time? It doesn’t feel right or fair that a very skilled team (second in goals in the regular season) can be bottled up and knocked out again and again.
Yet, even elite teams can have massive problems scoring goals. And yes, over multiple playoffs.
Vegas' problems when it comes to finishing are well-documented: they pile up huge expected goals totals and then underperform them - sometimes by big margins.— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) June 8, 2021
Is it a lack of finishing talent? A problem with the system? Plain old bad luck? That's what I wanted to find out. pic.twitter.com/A6Ze9Sq11T
Those numbers are stunning, they have a very good group and are generating a lot, yet also not scoring as much as it would be expected.
The difference — as it usually always comes back to in playoffs — is largely in net. Last year Robin Lehner and this year Fleury have been terrific, bailing out their team and giving them more time to get the offense on track. And with eight goals in the Games 3 and 4 and very dominant performances, the offense is coming around for the Golden Knights.
Jonathan Marchessault notched a hat trick in Game 4 and scored again last night in Game 5 (boosting his playoff goal total from a paltry two to up to a suddenly great six rallies in the process). Three days ago the 5’9, 180 pound Marchessault was contributing to the too small to impact playoffs narrative, scoring only five goals in his last 30 playoff games. Now he’s up to four goals in the last two, because that’s how skill and production tends to come about.
It’s not that rare or unusual that Crosby/Guentzel couldn’t score much in a handful of playoff games, scoring is down and tougher to do for everyone. Vegas stayed alive until Game 11 of their playoffs for Marchessault to break out and help them. Pittsburgh couldn’t find a way to do the same for their stars.
Even then, it is still fair and reasonable to point out that the Pens’ stars failure to score also narrowed Pittsburgh’s path to keep playing. But it must also be acknowledged that unless it’s like a 1991 or 1992 Mario Lemieux performance, one guy isn’t going to single-handedly carry a team forever in the NHL playoffs these days with as balanced and strong as the parity-filled league is today.
Why does this keep happening to the Penguins that circumstances all seem to conspire against them in the playoffs? There’s a lot of shared pain in Washington, Toronto and Winnipeg and Vegas as well, though Vegas has been working through it better to this point. Similarly, for every bad side of the coin, there’s an equal and opposite positive reaction. There’s a lot of hockey fate smiling on Long Island and Montreal right now.
It all boils down to the maddening but unavoidable reality for 15 teams that lose the last game they play this time of year. That part you can count on, but the events of just how good teams end up getting bounced are often very similar and usually boil down to goaltending, power plays, power play opportunities, bounces, injuries, coaching and just plain luck at times. In a seven game series, there’s only so much even a good team can control, and often a lot of scrambling in the aftermath.