Maybe the 2021-22 Pittsburgh Penguins were not legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Maybe the Carolina Hurricanes would have mopped the floor with them in the Second Round.
Maybe they would have upset them and then been embarrassed by Florida or Tampa Bay.
All are quite possibly true. But it would have at least been nice to see Sidney Crosby and co. get that chance to prove themselves. And quite frankly, they should have gotten that opportunity. And it is not unfair to be mad or angry that they are not getting it because their First Round loss to the New York Rangers seems like a pretty big missed opportunity, and quite possibly a frustrating way for the greatest era in franchise history to end.
The Penguins’ 4-3 overtime loss on Sunday night capped off an historic collapse in which the Penguins not only lost a 3-1 series lead, but blew leads in all three games to close out the series. It is the first time in Stanley Cup Playoff history that a team (in this case, the Rangers) ripped off three consecutive come-from-behind wins while facing elimination in the same series.
And that is what should sting for the Penguins.
They had this series won. They had the Rangers completely buried with two-goal leads in Games 5 and 6, and a lead with less than six minutes to play in Game 7. And they lost them all. That can not happen. It will be easy to point to the injury situations, but I am not going to do that. They were good enough to get the lead in those games, they were good enough to mostly outplay the Rangers, and they should have been expected to be good enough to close out those games.
There are no shortage of reasons why they fell apart.
Goaltending is at the top of the list. Again. For the second year in a row. I know it is a tough situation when your top two goalies are out, but I do not think Louis Domingue should be absolved of any blame or avoid any criticism here. He is not an emergency backup, some kid out of juniors with no NHL experience, or some guy that got pulled off the street. The guy has played 150 games in the NHL and has had varying degrees of success. He has played more than 30 games with a save percentage over .908 on two different occasions, and has a .905 save percentage for his career. Not great numbers, but certainly respectable. Certainly NHL quality. If he had given the Penguins that level of play, a level of play that he has demonstrated he is capable of, in his five starts, they win the series in five games.
And it is not like the Penguins asked him to stand on his head or steal games. They did a fantastic job insulating him and were asking for the routine. A goalie of his experience should have been able to deliver that bare minimum.
But that was far from the only problem.
Special teams also played a massive role as both units had their share of appallingly bad play.
The power play scored its share of goals, but the two failed 5-on-3 advantages in Games 5 and 6 will loom large. Not only the fact that they did not score on them, but the fact they were not even close to scoring on them. They were not just bad, they were shockingly bad.
The second unit did most of the damage on the power play in this series, while the first unit mostly tripped over itself, allowed two shorthanded goals, and then nearly allowed a third in the third period on Sunday while trying to protect a lead.
But for as inconsistent and sloppy as that unit looked, the penalty kill was an entirely different level of bad.
After having one of the best penalty killing units in the league during the regular season that unit completely imploded on itself in the playoffs. And it was not just about goaltending, either. The skaters were their own special brand of lousy.
Just consider these two sets of numbers from the regular season and playoffs:
Regular season per/60 numbers:
Playoff per/60 numbers
You can not give up that many shots and chances and expect it to work out. This is the one area where they did not help their goalies out, and it completely swung games and the series. They gave up the winning goal in Game 5, a game-changing goal in Game 6, and then the series-clinching goal in Game 7. Given how bad they were in the series it was fitting, then, that this unit was on the ice to end the series.
Then there were some of the decisions. Evan Rodrigues’ retaliation penalty in Game 6 when the game (and series) was in complete control. John Marino blindly throwing the puck to the middle of the ice with a one-goal lead late in Game 7. Brock McGinn’s turnover at the blue line that resulted in his penalty that created the power play that won the game. Just plays you can not make. You can not make those mistakes in December against Ottawa. You especially can not make them in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs or in potential knockout games.
The past 16 years have been the best era in the history of the franchise, and probably the best extended run of any team in Pittsburgh sports history. From 2006-07 on the Penguins have been the most successful organization in hockey, regular season and playoffs, and exceeded every expectation that anybody could have possibly had for them when this era began.
All of that is true.
But you are still allowed to be disappointed with the way they lost this series. And quite frankly, you should be. Because this core deserved another chance to see what it could accomplish.
Both things can be true.