When referring to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2014 playoff collapse, avoid the term "epic." That adjective is now the exclusive property of the San Jose Sharks.
But like the Sharks, the Penguins are facing fallout from this disappearing act in which they blew a 3-1 series lead and fell to the New York Rangers, the final blow coming in New York’s 2-1, Game 7 win Tuesday at Consol Energy Center.
"I haven’t contemplated what the price is going to be," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who surely has.
Pittsburgh’s demise had to sting doubly hard as it watched the Chicago Blackhawks advance to the conference finals again with a 2-1, overtime win in Minnesota later in the day. After back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances in 2008 and 2009, the Penguins looked like a dynasty in the making with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin yet to hit their prime. But it is Chicago, not Pittsburgh, that has turned top-end skill into multiple titles.
While much of the past angst in Pittsburgh has been focused on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury — and there is still worthy angst to be spent on that topic — the Penguins’ downfall in this series was coaching and scoring.
Consider that statement in the context of the Penguins roster. They have Crosby and Malkin, right? Over the final three games of this series, Pittsburgh scored three goals and Crosby — you know the guy a certain northern nation and a nation of hockey writers loves to defend because of those sexy possession stats — had zero points over that same three-game slide — but hey, a slight improvement at least over his complete lack of production against the Bruins in last season’s Eastern Conference final.
Crosby won the regular-season scoring race by 17 points over second-place Ryan Getzlaf. When Tuesday’s playoff action ended, Crosby was in a 10-way tie for 14th in points.
You can’t ignore the Henrik Lundqvist factor in this series. The New York Rangers goalie was brilliant — the best player in the series — holding the Penguins to the aforementioned three goals in the last three games. But an honest assessment of this series is that neither team was overly impressive, they just had the pleasure of playing each other in what felt like the most irrelevant series of the second round.
New York has a chance to change that perception in the Eastern Conference final after earning a large measure of respect with this rally, but for the Penguins, change will carry an entirely different meaning. Injuries aside, their roster had severe flaws all season, and when management finishes its postseason assessments, it may also find flaws in the front office and behind the bench that demand remedies.
GAME OF THE DAY
New York 2, Pittsburgh 1: We could have chosen either nail-biter on Tuesday, but a Game 7 carries a weight all its own. And when a team completes a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit, well, that earns the nod.
Corey Crawford’s save, but we can’t decide which one. There was the left-pad extension on Cody McCormick’s whirling attempt. There was the save and rebound save on Justin Fontaine. There was a big stop on Jason Pominville. There was the rebound robbery of Nino Niederreiter. There were the OT stops on Keith Ballard and Erik Haula. Let’s just call Crawford’s highlight reel package the extended play of the night.
1A. Henrik Lundqvist, G, New York: Lundqvist stopped 102 of 105 Pittsburgh shots in the Rangers’ three-game rally, looking every bit the game-changer he was during a four-year run from 2009-2012. He had 35 saves Tuesday.
1B. Corey Crawford, G, Chicago: Crawford played poorly in Games 3 and 4 in St. Paul, but he had perhaps his best game of the postseason on Tuesday, stopping 34 Wild shots to steal Game 6.
3. Patrick Kane, RW, Chicago: Kane had five shots on goal and was one of few Blackhawks who generated any offense on Tuesday. In overtime, his ridiculous hands produced the game-winning goal on a bad bounce off the end boards.
New York Rangers 2, Pittsburgh 1
Series: New York won, 4-3
Key stat: The Penguins are 7-7 all-time in Game 7s, but just 2-7 all-time at home.
Key player: Brad Richards, C, New York. Richards is 7-0 all-time in game 7s. He has two goals and three assists in those games, including the game-winning goal on Tuesday.
What we learned: Henrik Lundqvist is back. The guy who won the Vezina Trophy in 2012 and has been a top-three finalist four other times was dominant during New York’s rally. That he showed up for Game 7 was no surprise, however. Lundqvist set an NHL record with a fifth consecutive Game 7 win on Tuesday and he is 5-1 all-time in Game 7s with a 1.00 goals against average and a sparkling .965 save percentage. Martin St. Louis’ emotional goal in the wake of his mother’s death was powerful stuff. Richards has been money throughout this postseason and Derick Brassard was a pain in Pittsburgh’s side, but let’s face it, Lundqvist is why New York won. The Penguins outshot the Rangers 105-83 in the final three games and lost them all. King Henrik has risen and that is the biggest reason for New York’s hope of ending a 20-year Cup drought.
Next game: New York advanced to the Eastern Conference final where it will face the winner of the Montreal-Boston series.
Chicago 2, Minnesota 1 (OT)
Series: Chicago won, 4-2.
Key stat: Seven of the Blackhawks’ eight game-winning goals in the postseason are from Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane.
Key player: Corey Crawford, G, Chicago. We hate to mention him a third time, but he was that much better than any other Blackhawk on Tuesday. Some have called Crawford a big-game goaltender. It’s hard to argue after this performance. Crawford is second in the postseason in goals against average (1.97) and third in save percentage (.931).
What we learned: Minnesota is a whole lot faster than we thought it was. As the series progressed, it was shocking how much faster the Wild looked than the Blackhawks, who usually can count on the speed edge against opponents. Minnesota’s young legs — Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula, Zach Parise, etc. — were difficult for Chicago to contain. But in the end, the Wild just couldn’t finish consistently enough. While it is tempting to consider this a building block for Minnesota’s future, many a team has engineered a playoff run and failed to follow up on it. There was a time in late March when Minnesota was in free fall and looked like it would miss the playoffs altogether. The Wild were certainly more competitive against Chicago this postseason than in 2013 (a five-game loss), but Chicago still advanced and Chicago has sustained success over several seasons — not an easy thing to do. When the players cleared the ice on Tuesday, the camera caught Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville visibly exhaling. Quenneville knew the Blackhawks had stolen this game, but the good news for Chicago is that it should be at full strength for the next round. Injured forward Andrew Shaw will be back soon (Chicago really missed his grit) and Brandon Bollig’s suspension is over. The Hawks will be rested and playoff-healthy when Anaheim or L.A. comes calling.
Next game: Chicago advanced to the Western Conference final where it will face the winner of the Anaheim-Los Angeles series.
Final thought: Maybe it’s just a statistical anomaly, or maybe pressure mounts on home teams as games drag on. Whatever the reason, Chicago’s win on Tuesday in St. Paul, Minn., meant the road team has won the last seven overtime games in the 2014 playoffs.