Mark Madden: Taking lessons from Penguins’ elimination
For the first time in over three years, the Penguins lost a playoff series. What did we learn? Refreshing Penguins notes will mentor, even if Ben Roethlisberger won’t.
• Connor McDavid has the scoring title. Taylor Hall or Nathan MacKinnon might win NHL MVP. But those are false dawns for hockey’s youth movement, because Sidney Crosby proved in these playoffs that, at 30, he is still the game’s best player. Crosby had 21 points in 12 games, elevated Jake Guentzel, dominated more shifts than he didn’t and passed every eye test.
• That’s not to diminish Guentzel’s performance. The second-year winger was brilliant in last year’s playoffs, better in this year’s. Defenseman Brian Dumoulin was also excellent, except for his finishing (which isn’t necessarily to be expected from a top-flight defensive defenseman).
• Defenseman Kris Letang had an up-and-down year and an up-and-down playoff. That’s not unexpected given he was recovering from major neck surgery. Letang has emerged as a social-media scapegoat but is unlikely to be traded. Legit No. 1 defensemen are scarce. Once Letang has a full summer to train, he’ll be better. But at 31, he might need to simplify his game.
• Goalie Matt Murray also had a roller-coaster campaign. In the playoffs, he was OK but couldn’t find his form of last spring. Murray missed time after his father died in mid-January and was playing very well when he got concussed in late February. Murray returned a month later but never got to the level needed. He is nonetheless a great long-term bet if he stays healthy.
• It smacks of excuse-making, but the Penguins were spent physically and mentally. Sleeping in and not practicing probably strikes most of them as a good idea. Monday’s loss was their 307th competitive game since October 2015. There’s a reason only two teams have won three (or more) Stanley Cups in a row since the 1967 NHL expansion. Monday’s post-game locker room was disappointed, no question. But there was a bit of relief in the air, too.
• Washington was a worthy winner. All four playoff series between the Penguins and Capitals during the Crosby-Alex Ovechkin era have been tight, and the Capitals won this one largely via a game plan that stifled whatever the Penguins tried. The Capitals can beat Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference final if injured center Nicklas Backstrom plays. If he doesn’t, they can’t.
• Mike Sullivan has done a phenomenal job coaching. But next year, he could be more flexible with his system and game plan. He insists that his defensemen pinch and jump into the attack no matter what. That’s understandable. It’s worked since Sullivan took over in December 2015. But the Capitals beat the pinch and used the stretch pass to effectively counterattack. Maybe Sullivan’s tactics became predictable. Perhaps the execution was off. But the Penguins need more options. To temper how they play according to the foe, or according to score and situation.
• Assistant coach Mark Recchi is high on forward Dominik Simon. Goalie coach Mike Buckley likes Casey DeSmith. But Daniel Sprong is better than Simon, and Tristan Jarry is better than DeSmith. Indulging pet projects gets a team in trouble. Trust your instincts, but trust talent more.
• The Penguins got lots of energy from call-ups Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary in 2015-16 and from Guentzel in 2016-17. Simon and Zach Aston-Reese didn’t deliver that this season. Third-line center Nick Bonino unexpectedly got 18 points in 24 playoff games in 2016. Guentzel, as a rookie, led the postseason with 13 goals in 2017. But there was no unforeseen savior now. Winners often benefit by the unpredictable. This year, the Penguins didn’t.
• The Penguins had the best home record in the Eastern Conference during the regular season. They went 2-4 at PPG Paints Arena during the playoffs. Everybody wants home ice. But it’s not always an advantage.
• The Penguins’ window is still wide open. Three consecutive Stanley Cups would have made history. But three Cups in four years wouldn’t be too bad.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).