The Pittsburgh Penguins fell 2-1 to the New York Rangers in Game 1 of their first-round series. It was a competitive game and the Penguins performed better than most expected them to.
However, the story seems the same.
For some context, the Penguins and Rangers met in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal last year. Pittsburgh jumped out to a 3-1 series lead and looked destined to move on, but they choked. The Pens lost three straight, were removed from playoff contention and head coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero were relieved of their duties.
This season it was supposed to be different. Newly appointed GM Jim Rutherford was making trades, rookie head coach Mike Johnston’s system took the NHL by storm and hockey was once again fun to follow in Pittsburgh. Yet, as the season progressed things continued to worsen for the Penguins. Opposing teams adjusted to Johnston’s simplistic system and most of Rutherford’s trades backfired.
Things got so bad that the Penguins regular season sellout streak was in serious jeopardy. It wasn’t only that: rumors have circulated that the Pens core might be disbanded this summer or that the legend Mario Lemiuex might actually sell the franchise.
Pittsburgh barely made it into the playoffs with the last wild-card spot and now face an uphill battle against the president’s trophy winning New York Rangers.
Last night the series began and the Pens fell 2-1 to the Rangers. While there was a lot to be encouraged about, it’s hard to not from see the inevitable truth.
The New York Rangers do not respect the Penguins.
Their entire defensive effort was centered around shutting down two of the NHL’s best in captain Sidney Crosby and superstar Evgeni Malkin. It worked, perfectly. Malkin and Crosby were held to a combined three shots on goal, were a non-factor and also realized that the Russian center is playing with an injured back.
Fundamentally, the team is more dependent on the play of their superstars than ever before and that would be ok if they were all healthy. When you have All-Star defender Kris Letang missing the playoffs and Malkin playing through injury, there needs to be some support from the other players.
That’s the one thing you didn’t see last night.
Blake Comeau did score and the Penguins’ stars weren’t on the ice, but it misses the point. Comeau put the puck in on an empty net when forward Maxim Lapierre practically tackled Rangers’ goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
The good news coming out of last night was that Pittsburgh actually put up a fight against the Rangers and AHL callups Brian Dumoulin and Taylor Chorney performed admirably in their first career playoff games.
New York’s defensive strategy will be the same for the entire series, shut down Crosby/Malkin and make the other Penguins’ forwards beat them and why shouldn’t the Rangers play that way? Their blue line is phenomenal, boasting Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle, Matt Hunwick and Ryan McDonagh. With 6 quality NHL defenders, there’s no reason not to force the Penguins’ secondary scorers to beat them.
The sad truth is they can’t do it. Pittsburgh was undisciplined, failed to convert on chances and don’t look like a team destined to leave the first round. The Penguins were the most penalized team in the regular season.
It’s a shame that management couldn’t put together a better team in front of Pens goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. While there are player personal problems, Fleury is not part of it in any way. He did everything he could to keep the Penguins in the game as shown by his .947 save percentage.
So while it’s great the Pens played well against the top seeded Rangers, do not expect much more from them. Barring a miraculous turnaround it will be another long offseason in Pittsburgh.