For the first time since June 12, 2016, the Pittsburgh Penguins are not the Stanley Cup Champions. There will be no on-ice celebrations, no parades, no summer full of that championship atmosphere. What the team and the city are left with is a reminder of how difficult it is to win Lord Stanley’s hardware. As painful as that reminder is, it also serves to remind everyone wearing black and gold why they play the game.
Four Seasons in Three Years
Let me explain. The 2016 Stanley Cup run took 24 games to complete. The following year took one more than that. This season, the Penguins played 12 games (and some overtime) before Kuznetsov ended it. In three postseasons, there have been 61 playoff games; which is equivalent to three-fourths of an 82-game regular season. All of this adds up to 307 games being played over the past three years, at an average of about 102 per season.
BOTTOM LINE: That is a lot of hockey. Speed was Pittsburgh’s greatest ally for the last few years. This year, they just didn’t have the legs to get them over the hump. Nobody in that organization would ever try to use this fact as an excuse, but it is a legitimate factor. Is it frustrating? Yes. Is it understandable? Even bigger ‘yes’.
Locker room cleanouts were held on May 9, and that is traditionally the time when the list of injuries is released into the world. Besides the broken jaw of Zach Aston-Reese, many suspicions were confirmed. Phil Kessel has the third-longest active consecutive regular season games streak at 692. GM Jim Rutherford commended him on his tenacity but admitted that small injuries had plagued him all season. While Kessel put up a career-high 92 points, he only found the back of the net once in 12 playoff games this year.
Derick Brassard admitted to injuring himself later in the regular season. He also admitted that he may have tried to return to the lineup too soon and that his hunger to play in Game 1 versus the Flyers may have clouded his judgment. While his injury was undisclosed, Jim Rutherford commented that it was an extremely difficult one to play through. This information makes his relegation to the fourth line a bit more understandable. It is unclear what the Penguins plan to do with Brassard next year. With one year left on his contract, they may try to trade him to improve other areas of their roster. Brassard is one of the top centers in the league, if he can get healthy over the offseason, he should be able to fill the role for which he was originally brought in.
Braden Holtby came into this series looking to settle the score. The Penguins had been his kryptonite for the past 2 postseasons, and he was determined to rewrite the script on the third attempt. He got it just right. At this moment, Holtby is rocking a 2.06 GAA and a .926 save percentage. After a difficult end to the regular season, as well as losing his job for the first two games of the series against Columbus, he found his game once again. Most importantly, he made the big saves when he needed to. In the past two seasons, that was where he fell just short. Holtby would play out of his mind, but that one goal that pushed the Penguins to victory would always find its way into the net.
On the other side of the ice, Matt Murray or Marc-Andre Fleury would make that big save. It may not have been the save of the season, but it was big enough that it held their team in the game while detracting from the opposition’s chances. 2018 was a flip in the narrative. Matt Murray played some excellent hockey games, and Game 6 against Washington may have been one of his best. The difference this series was that Holtby was the one coming up with the timely saves. Murray is 23 years old, has two Stanley Cups, and has just lost his first playoff series. While they may be hard to swallow, the lessons he will learn from this loss will be absolutely priceless in the future.
At this point, there is no point in beating a dead horse. Kris Letang underperformed. Everybody underperformed, (maybe with the exception of Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby). Unfortunately for Letang, his mistakes were the most notable. While his play all season has been a point of concern, his response after the Game 6 loss was reassuring. Letang was harder on himself than anybody else. He recognized how far short he had fallen, and let the whole world know how hard he intends to work to improve next season. His team will need him to make good on that promise.
Right now, it is time to rest and evaluate. Even though it was an abbreviated postseason, it was still hard on each and every Penguin. Washington finally got the monkey off of their back and are headed to their first Conference Final in the Ovechkin era.
He. Deserves. It.
Regardless of how one might feel about him or his team, they have worked tirelessly ever since his draft day to get to this point. Best of luck to them as they move on to play the Tampa Bay Lightning with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line.
For Pittsburgh, relax. Take a breath. Look around. It has been an incredible two years of Penguins hockey. Out of the playoffs in December of 2015, they rallied in 2016, exacted revenge on the Rangers for 2014 and 2015, and went on a championship run that could not have been better if it were scripted. Then again the next year, the Penguins found a way to battle through injuries and adversity on their way to the first back-to-back championships since the ‘98 Red Wings. This hockey town is so incredibly lucky to have witnessed such success. This loss hurts, but the best part about it is that it reminds Penguins fans how much the city of Pittsburgh loves winning.