A Whirlwind Of Questions Surround Penguins After-Playoff Collapse

Tristan Jarry looks in dismay as the Rangers celebrate Artemi Panarin’s series winning overtime goal at Madison Square Garden.

(AP)

Tristan Jarry looks in dismay as the Rangers celebrate Artemi Panarin’s series winning overtime goal at Madison Square Garden.

It’s overtime, Game 7. The crowd at Madison Square Garden is surging, and anxiety is taking the fans at the home of both teams by storm. The Rangers are about to go on the power play, as a result of Brock McGinn trying to prevent a K’Andre Miller breakaway, and taking a holding penalty in the process. 

Then, in an instant, the puck comes back to Artemi Panarin, and from what looks like an impossible angle with the entire net covered, Panarin’s shot somehow finds the back of the net. The Rangers celebrate at the boards, as the crowd is losing their minds, rightfully so. The Rangers had come back from down 3-1 in the series, and down 3-2 in Game 7, to win it. For the Rangers, it’s a comeback story that will live in New York lore forever. For the Penguins, it’s yet another embarrassing playoff collapse. 

But how did we get here? How are we at this point again? How did they lose, again?

Game 1 could have gone either way. Everyone knows the story, Casey DeSmith goes down with an injury in double overtime, forcing third-string goaltender (and noted chef) Louis Domingue into the game. He makes 17 saves, and Evgeni Malkin deflects in the game-winner in triple overtime to give the Pens a 1-0 series lead. 

Game 2 doesn’t go as well. 5-2 Rangers. But it’s ok, you were able to steal a game in New York, and you can take a commanding 3-1 series lead if you win both at home. And the Penguins did exactly that. 7-4 in Game 3 and 7-2 in Game 4, and they chase probable Vezina winning goaltender Igor Shesterkin in both games. 

The “Iiiiiiigorrrr” taunts are raining down from the Pittsburgh crowd, who is absolutely ecstatic. The Penguins were up 3-1 in the series, riding high and with a chance to move on in Game 5. 

And then Game 5 happens. The turning point of the entire series was the game in which Jacob Trouba lays a headshot on Sidney Crosby. The Penguins, with Sid out of the game a few shifts later, begin to fall apart and allow 3 goals in less than 3 minutes. They are able to tie it at 3, but eventually fall 5-3. Instead of locking it down and shutting the door, the Penguins gave New York hope

But it’s ok, right? Game 6 is back in Pittsburgh, where you scored 14 goals in 2 games, you can end it all here. Louis Domingue has been shaky, but if the offense can perform as they did in Games 3 and 4, this can be for sure a win. Game 6 starts out great, Pittsburgh is off to a great start and is up 2-0 after the first period. 

Domingue looks (mostly) solid, the defense is good, and the offense is still producing. The Rangers, playing with that desperation that the Penguins needed to, stormed back, and scored 3 goals to take the lead at 3-2. Evgeni Malkin, who was a ghost of this series, gets a breakaway late in the second period to tie it at 3. 

But, with under two minutes left in the third period, a relatively harmless shot from the point bounces off Domingue and into the air. Domingue is unable to locate it, as is the Pen’s defense, and trickles into the net. The roaring Penguins crowd falls silent, as the only cheers you can hear in the arena are those of Chris Kreider and his teammates…  An empty netter makes it 5-3, and we’re going back to New York City for a Game 7. 

Game 7 couldn’t have been more dramatic. Sidney Crosby, Rickard Rakell (injured in Game 1), and Tristan Jarry (injured since April 14) are all back in the Pittsburgh lineup, a huge boost to a depleted Pens team that needed anything they could get. The game is back and forth, momentum swings faster than the pendulum on one of those fancy clocks. The Penguins and Rangers trade chances, goals, and everything in between, leading to a tightly contested, tied 3-3 Game 7 that goes into overtime. 

And this brings me to where I started this article: Artemi Panarin’s overtime power-play, game-winning goal spells the end of the season for Pittsburgh and completes a comeback for the ages in New York. 

It was the 4th first-round exit in a row for the Penguins and the 4th time in franchise history that the team blew a 3-1 series lead, including a 2014 instance also against the Rangers. 

And here we are again, wondering what happens next? This upcoming offseason is unlike so many others that took place after disappointing playoff failures, with the speculation swirling around pending unrestricted free agents Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Was Game 7 the last game Penguins fans get to see Crosby, Malkin, and Letang all together? Was this really the last ride?

As unfathomable as it is for some fans, it certainly is a possibility that the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era is over. With relatively new management in Ron Hextall and Brian Burke, and a new ownership group in Fenway Sports Group, could the Penguins move in a new direction?

In their media availability in the coming days, both Malkin and Letang expressed interest in returning but acknowledged the reality that their returns are far from guaranteed. 

I hope we find a way to make both (parties) happy,” Malkin, whose eight-year contract that paid him an average of $9.5 million a year will come to an end on July 1st, said. “It’s all business. I’m (prepared) to go away. If I stay, I’m so much happy. But if not, I’ll move my family to other [sic] city and hope I can play my best hockey.”

Malkin’s MVP days are most likely behind him, but even at age 35 (and 36 in July), he, found a way to be a point a game player, putting up 20 goals and 22 assists for 42 points in 41 games. 

The real question for Malkin, is what price will he command? He has 3 Stanley Cups, a Hart, Conn Smythe, and Calder trophy under his belt, and will definitely find a number of other teams around the NHL dying to have his services. 

Malkin stressed that money is “not a big deal”, but with reports that the Penguins offered low-ball deals to both Malkin and Letang, maybe money will become a bigger factor when Malkin sees what the open market can offer him. 

Letang, for his part, left either more or less room for speculation depending on how you look at it. He declined to talk about his contract talks in public, saying “As far as contracts, me and [GM Ron Hextall] were clear that we were not mentioning anything to anyone. It stays between me and the team.” 

I don’t think any kind of full rebuild happens in Pittsburgh while Sidney Crosby is still playing hockey, but that doesn’t mean management won’t make major changes to a roster that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2018. 

Bryan Rust is also a very important unrestricted free agent and is in store for a huge payday in his next contract. Considering how much money someone else will likely throw at him in free agency, the chances he’s back in a Penguin uniform are minimal at best, especially if the Penguins aim to retain Malkin and Letang. 

Evan Rodrigues, Brian Boyle, and trade deadline acquisition Rickard Rakell are also all UFAs, and Danton Heinen and Kasperi Kapanen are restricted, free agents. 

After Kapanen’s abysmal season, Pittsburgh should probably just let him walk (likely to the dismay of Chef Tom). Boyle, Heinen, and Rodrigues are all good depth pieces that I’d like to see back, but you’re not making much change to the roster if you’re bringing them all back. 

If Rust is indeed gone, it’s possible the Penguins shift more attention to keeping Rakell. Rakell showed good chemistry on the top line with Crosby and Guentzel, but we didn’t get a chance to see much come of it, as head coach Mike Sullivan often chose to play Rakell on the second line instead.

But even after all of this, we aren’t fully sure who will even be making the decision for the Penguins. GM Ron Hextall and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke might be under fire from their new owners, Fenway Sports Group, who have a track record of success they’d love to extend to the Penguins. It’s not out of the question that FSG could look to clean house and install their own staff in Pittsburgh’s front office. 

There’s no question that Malkin and Letang will dominate the off-season conversation around the Penguins because they are two-thirds of the Penguin’s core. Sidney Crosby never has been and never will be anywhere close to leaving Pittsburgh, he will retire a Penguin. But this is the first time there is a real danger that this core could be breaking up. 

Regardless of what happens in the offseason, the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era brought the Penguins three Stanley Cups and 16 straight playoff berths, the longest active streak in North American pro sports. However, if this is the end, the legacy also ends with five straight playoff series losses and not a single series win since 2018. 

This Penguins team really seemed to believe they had a run in them this year. All the quotes from the Penguins on locker clean-out day proved that. And that’s what makes this collapse sting so much.