Listen, the Pittsburgh Penguins never had a chance.
Not in these playoffs. Not no way, not no how. Three of their top-four defensemen are out and they aren’t coming back. The fourth is on 25-plus minutes a night (at 34 years old) for better than a month now. The fifth one was traded for a boat anchor.
The puck-support offense that this coaching staff stressed so much at the outset of the season was dead on arrival, now that two-thirds of the defense can’t skate, pass or shoot.
That, in turn, has affected the forwards. They can’t find space against the Rangers’ full-court press. Some of the better forwards in this stunted group are playing hurt. All of this, even reversed and still with career-best goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, puts them at about even-money against the winningest NHL team of the regular season, at best.
So this isn’t a flop, it isn’t a flame out, it isn’t a collapse. The Penguins entered this series as the worse team, piled on a hugely, significantly, massively-more damning injured list and have just about found their too-old legs too gassed to keep up for more than half of any given game.
For five years, the Penguins were the over, and their playoff losses were disappointments. That’s what happens when you’ve got championship expectations.
No such expectations should have been attached to this squad. So six straight postseasons without a Cup or not, this team doesn’t deserve the nuclear media treatment its former, more-failing-er self rightly earned.
But that’s boring, and pinning the fault for an eventual series loss on simple injuries — which every team encounters — isn’t satisfying. Not when you’ve been promised more. (Or perhaps when you’ve promised yourself more, anyway.) So the blame, again, is shifting to the stars.
This is a bad and terrible topic. It’s as polluted as any of Pittsburgh’s three rivers and at least twice as likely to flood your home. With bad and terrible things in mind, let’s do another bad and terrible thing: power rankings.
In order of no importance, here are five ways in which your awful opinion on the Pittsburgh Penguins is awful.
5. Temper Your Expectations
As in: a loss isn’t the end of the world because you shouldn’t have expected the world from this roster in the first place.
The last management group traded away too many draft picks and committed too many years and dollars to old and bad players for the current group to recover from in a year’s time. The current group has done a better job, but only barely.
The roster is too old. The cap situation is completely untenable. Even if healthy, this roster wouldn’t have hit the second season as heavy favorites against any team in the East.
The Pens are down in the series and definitely should be and will probably lose and that’s okay. We all need to be okay with it, too.
4. Gross Management Oversight, Part I
This team was so tight to the salary cap that they had to dress five mostly-bad defensemen through the miserable stretch run of the regular season.
Pittsburgh survived, but those left standing are now so gassed they have no chance of hanging with the Rangers through a 60-minute game, even if the coaching staff has maximized its game plan to fit a depleted roster.
Every one of the Penguins’ three trades made at the NHL trade deadline was a salary-added move, and only one — Ian Cole for Robert Bortuzzo — has provided a no-brainer upgrade through the first four games of the postseason. That.333 batting average left the team in a desperate spot in the final weeks of the regular season, and that hangover is still being felt through four games of the first round.
3. Did we mention the second line?
Neither has been suitably replaced.
David Perron looked like a great get when the Pens acquired him ahead of the deadline. He’s on no goals in 16 games and is part of a rotation of ineffective players to have flanked Malkin in these playoffs. That group also includes Chris Kunitz, Blake Comeau and Daniel Winnik.
The Penguins constantly ask their star centers to spin straw into gold. Last year, it was Crosby trying to make something out of the nothing that was Lee Stempniak and Brian Gibbons.
Now, it’s Malkin’s turn. That this is something the Penguins ask of their top centers, even if in the indirect manner of flat-out failing to build a competent NHL roster, is absurd.
Injuries are going to keep this team out of the deeper part of these playoffs. But that kind of cap-management is going to keep them out of contention for the long haul. Healthy or otherwise.
2. Gross management oversight, Part II
1. It’s the Injuries, Stupid.
The Penguins are without Kris Letang and Olli Maatta. Neither is coming back for this postseason, even if by some miracle it should extend into May or June. That’s $8-plus million worth of defenseman taking a UPMC charter off into the sunset.
Throw Christian Ehrhoff into that mix, citing reports that his recovery from his third concussion this season has “flat-lined.”
Derrick Pouliot, the first of many defensemen who would play above his head to fill those vacancies, has also yet to appear in this series.
Malkin is playing with a back injury. He’s playing with three back injuries, to be exact, but two of them are named David Perron and Blake Comeau.
Comeau, to be fair, rushed back from a wrist injury. Pascal Dupuis, who could conceivably replace either of those struggling two in the top-six, is also unavailable.
The Penguins lost better than 340 man-games to injury this season, fifth-most in the NHL. They lost more games to quality players than every team but Columbus. No other team in the postseason is facing injuries like the Pens, whether by quality or number of players lost.
That’s the short and skinny of the late-season standings dive and current foot-in-the-grave playoff scenario. It’s an explanation as entertaining as the Rangers defensive-zone coverage.
It’s boring. It sucks. But it’s the truth.