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Empty Thoughts: Islanders 5, Penguins 3

There’s going to be quite a bit written about what the Penguins will do over the next four months. This little corner of the Internet won’t delve into that too much. For the time being, let’s just focus on what went wrong over the course of six games in mid-spring.

Well … a lot went wrong.

And it really didn’t seem like it should have.

Sure, the Penguins have failed to win a postseason series for the third consecutive year. But this loss feels different.

In 2019, the Penguins just looked way too disjointed down the final stretch of the regular season and were swept by the New York Islanders in the first round. They were trying to basically outscore teams with 5-4 results and that approach will never work in the playoffs.

As for 2020, in their qualifying round loss to the Montreal Canadiens, things were so disjointed given the pandemic, it was hard to really draw any connections between the regular season and the postseason due to the four-plus month gap between games. Sure, the Penguins should have beaten the Canadiens with ease, but there was almost no reason to gauge how they would play in “the bubble” based on what they did during the regular season. It was just two random teams showing up and playing hockey with the lesser team happening to win.

This? It’s baffling.

With apologies to backup goaltender Casey DeSmith and forward Evgeni Malkin’s creaky right knee, the Penguins entered this postseason mostly healthy.

And deep. From the top tiers of their lineup to the reserves who didn’t dress, this was a very deep roster.

And they were playing very well down the final portions of the regular season. To borrow an idiom made famous by former coach Dan Bylsma, the Penguins routinely were able to get to their game and systematically carve out wins en route to a division championship.

Yet, with the benefit of all those factors, they could only muster two wins against an admittedly stiff opponent.

Why? How?

There are a variety of reasons.

First, the goaltending. It was just bad. Tristan Jarry has been groomed for this moment over the course of eight years and he simply did not meet the challenge. The Penguins needed him to be the franchise goaltender they hoped he could become when he was drafted in 2013 and he never provided that for them.

That was evident even in the context of this game. The Penguins had three separate leads and he allowed the Islanders to tie the game each time before they ultimately went out in front.

By no means is Jarry a lost cause. He can rebound from this. But goodness, was this a poor showing by him.

Beyond him, the Penguins had far too many passengers on this train and not enough conductors.

Jake Guentzel, Jared McCann, Kasperi Kapanen, John Marino and even Sidney Crosby could all fit that description over the course of this series.

On the other hand, Jeff Carter, Malkin (albeit at less than 100 percent), Kris Letang, Brandon Tanev and even Frederick Gaudreau did what they could do in their various stations to keep this team’s season going.

Ultimately, the Islanders’ team game won out over the Penguins’ approach.

Even with their high-end players such as Mathew Barzal or Jordan Eberle not offering all that much, the Islanders got enough contributions from a roster full of role players to emerge with a victory.

And having a goaltender steal games (or just post a save percentage north of .900) is key too.

The Penguins’ failures in the 2021 playoffs are no different than the setbacks they suffered the previous two years in terms of what they failed to accomplish.

But this foundering just feels as though it carries so much more gravity.

“It’s disappointment,” Crosby said. “It’s not guaranteed to make the playoffs. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been there a lot. Every time you get to play in the playoffs, it’s an opportunity. It really is the best time of the year. You want to be in it. You want to be in it for a long time, you want to compete for the Stanley Cup. It’s never a good feeling when you lose. With the way that we played leading into the playoffs, I think that we felt good about our group and we thought that we could make a good run. So for it to come to a halt here is disappointing.

“This is probably the ultimate learning experience going through this. It’s tough to lose in the playoffs. It’s tough to get here. This one stings.”

What happened

The Penguins took a lead 1:27 into regulation. Off a two-on-two rush into the Islanders’ zone, Carter got behind backchecking Islanders forward Anthony Beauvillier and received a pass in the left circle from Kapanen. Attacking the net, Carter was able to slip a forehand shot through goaltender Ilya Sorokin’s five hole for his team-leading fourth goal of the postseason. Kapanen and forward Jason Zucker collected assists.

It didn’t take the Islanders long to tie the game at the 5:16 mark. On a similar two-on-two sequence, Beauvillier got behind backchecking Penguins forward Sidney Crosby and accepted a pass in the slot. Approaching the net, he lifted a backhander over the left shoulder of Jarry for his third goal. Linemates Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey recorded assists.

A power-play goal put the Penguins back up in front, 2-1, at 11:12 of the first. Faking a shot off the left half wall, Letang pulled his stick down then fed a pass to the slot where Guentzel stroked a one-timer. The puck glanced off the right skate of Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock and hopped over past Sorokin’s glove for Guentzel’s first goal of the postseason. Letang and Malkin tallied assists.

The Islanders persisted and tied the game again, 2-2, at 12:25 of the first. Off a neutral zone steal, Islanders forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau gained the offensive zone and chucked a wrister on net from the right point. Jarry punched the puck away with his blocker towards the left circle where Islanders forward Kyle Palmieri crashed in and tapped in an easy forehand shot for his third goal. Pageau had the only assist.

Zucker scored his second of the postseason 1:53 into the middle frame to put his team up, 3-2. From the right point, Penguins defenseman Cody Ceci lobbed a wrister towards the cage. Zucker gained position on Islanders defenseman Andy Greene to the right of the crease and redirected the puck with his backhand past Sorokin’s blocker on the far side. Assists went to Malkin and Ceci.

Things were tied again, 3-3, at 8:35 of the second. Accepting a pass on the right half wall, Islanders forward Josh Bailey faked a shot then chopped a slap-pass to the left of the crease. With Crosby late in defending on a backcheck, Islanders forward Brock Nelson was able to tap in the puck past Jarry’s blocker on the near side for his second goal. Bailey and Beauvillier had assists.

The Islanders took their first lead 13 seconds later. After Malkin lost a faceoff in his own right circle to Islanders forward Travis Zajac, Pageau claimed the puck and slid a pass to the right point where Pulock teed up a one-timer that blew past Jarry’s left skate for his second goal. Jarry appeared to be screened on the play as he reacted late to the puck. Assists went to Pageau and Zajac.

Nelson added an insurance score at 11:34 of the second. Stealing a puck off of Guentzel in New York’s zone, Beauvillier turned up ice in transition and gained the offensive zone on the left wing. Taking a little backhand pass at the left point from Beauvillier, Nelson surveyed the zone, lined up Ceci as a screen and snapped off a wrister that trickled through Jarry’s five hole. Beauvillier had a the only assist. The Penguins called timeout to get organized but that tactic proved to be too little, too late.

Statistically speaking

• The Penguins dominated shots, 37-24.

• Carter, Crosby, Letang, Zucker and Nelson each led the game with four shots.

• Letang led the game with 28:47 of ice time on 29 shifts.

• Defenseman Adam Pelech led the Islanders with 24:55 of ice time on 34 shifts.

• The Islanders controlled faceoffs, 33-25 (56%).

• Pageau was 14 for 18 (78%).

• Crosby was 8 for 17 (47%).

• Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield led the game with four blocked shots.

• Defenseman Mike Matheson and forward Bryan Rust each led the Penguins with two blocked shots.

• Jarry made 19 saves on 24 shots.

• Sorokin made 34 saves on 37 shots.

Randomly speaking

• At least from a player’s perspective, Jarry will bear the brunt of what went wrong in this series. And that’s more than fair. That’s the nature of being a goaltender, particularly one who has been developed for nearly a decade to be a difference-maker in situations like this.

The way he played in Game 6 almost looked like some of the low moments former Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury endured in that chaotic Eastern Conference quarterfinal series in 2012 against the Philadelphia Flyers. He just looked like his confidence was shattered and with that, his technique went by the wayside.

For the series, Jarry had a 3.18 goals against average and a putrid .888 save percentage. Neither is anything close to being adequate in the postseason.

If Jarry was even average, the Penguins win this series.

• Crosby was below his otherwise high standards as well. That’s not an external opinion either. Crosby said as much after the game (see below).

In Game 6, he just looked slow, particularly defensively. There aren’t many times you can say that about Crosby but in this contest, he was just a step or two behind some of the younger, quicker players on the Islanders.

There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with Crosby from a medical standpoint - and certainly the Penguins aren’t going to be all that forthcoming with such information - but he just didn’t look like the player who dictated everything as he has for the past 15 years. The Penguins needed more out of their captain.

• As for Malkin, he did what he could within his limitations. He clearly wasn’t skating at 100 percent. It wouldn’t be a surprise if it’s revealed that his damaged right knee requires some sort of procedure this offseason.

Regardless, he powered through his issues and found ways to generate some offense. But his skating just looked several steps behind what he typically offers. He had an unsuccessful breakaway late in the second period in which he looked like he was skating in sand.

• Zucker showed some guts in this game. He left the ice at 13:42 of the second period needing assistance from Crosby and athletic trainer Chris Stewart to even get to the rampway. All signs pointed to him being down for the night. Yet, at the start of the third period, he came out of the tunnel and grinded through some kind of right leg ailment.

Zucker didn’t do nearly enough for his team over six games, but he left everything he had left on the ice in the sixth game.

• Where would the Penguins have been without Carter? He led the team in postseason goals with four. He was clearly reinvigorated by the late-season trade that landed him in Pittsburgh. He was easily the team’s best player in this series.

• Guentzel’s goal was certainly a positive development but it was clearly too little, too late. He had plenty of chances in this series but just couldn’t find a way to solve Sorokin or Semyon Varlamov, the Islanders’ other goaltender, until Game 6.

• For the second consecutive year, McCann was a non-factor in the postseason. Whatever chemistry he developed with Carter and whatever resurgence he found on his own in the regular season did not translate to the postseason.

• Letang had a pretty good series all things considered. He had six points (one goal, five assists) in six games and largely cut down the crippling errors that aggravate his harshest critics.

He was not perfect in this series, but Letang was nowhere near being a problem for the Penguins.

• Whatever final hopes the Penguins had in the late stages of this game evaporated when Marino took a double minor for high sticking Islanders forward Matt Martin and drawing blood at 15:16 of the third. The Islanders just milked the clock and secured a victory.

It was something of a fitting end to Marino’s otherwise forgettable season. After such a steady and impressive rookie season in 2019-20, his sophomore campaign almost seemed like a regression.

If the Penguins harbor realistic hopes he will be their top defenseman at some point, he needs an immediate rebound.

• What made this loss all the more disheartening for the Penguins was that this was Sorokin’s least impressive effort of the series. He looked shaky at times. It just happened that Jarry looked shakier more of the time.

• Beauvillier had quite a series. He has plenty of speed and skill to go with a little bit of grit to his game. He’s a very complete player.

• Zajac came into the lineup to replace injured forward Oliver Wahlstrom after being a healthy scratch for the first five games and came through with a couple of key plays.

At 18:20 of the first period, Kapanen made a mad dash on net and appeared to have Sorokin beat with a forehand shot but Zajac almost accidentally happened to be in place to clear it out with his stick.

Then, he came through with a key faceoff win against Malkin (after Pageau was tossed by a linesman) to set up Pulock’s winning goal.

Success in the playoffs is often predicated on having a ton of depth. The Islanders needed to tap into their depth given Wahlstrom’s absence and it paid off. Having Zajac, even if he’s well past his prime, as a 13th forward is evidence of strong depth.

• Full marks to the Islanders’ fans for creating an incredible atmosphere at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Not only do they make this cramped lovable dump of a building loud, but they have so many individual chants for players or situations. At one point, they were singing “Happy Birthday” to Barzal while the Penguins were on the attack.

• Handshakes:

Historically speaking

• The Penguins have won three of their past 16 postseason games. That’s not good.

• The Penguins are now 1-5 all-time in playoff series against the Islanders.

• The Islanders won a playoff series in Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum for the first time since they defeated the Washington Capitals in the Patrick Division semifinal round in 1993.

Publicly speaking

• Crosby on the Penguins’ core potentially being broken up:

“They’ve been saying that for four years, right? So I don’t know if I’m going to change anybody’s mind. We did a lot of good things this year. You can look at every year and analyze it differently. But this year, I felt like we had a good group and we did a lot of good things. We easily could have made a run. I feel very confident about this group in saying that and the way that we were trending, the way we finished this year. But it’s a fine line in the playoffs. … I know the three of us, we want to win and we’ll do whatever it takes to try to compete to do that every year.”

• Crosby on the future of the franchise:

“I’ve never been one to try to be (general manager) and I’m not going to start now. Those guys want to win. We’ve been together for a long time. We’ve seen how much they care and their commitment. Don’t ever question that. There’s so many parts and it is a business. So, that’s up to other people. As far as what I can see and how I feel, there’s zero doubt in my mind that the group that we have is a really good group. We had an opportunity here and that’s why it stings so much.”

• Carter on what the Penguins core players may have left beyond this season:

“Up and down the lineup, it’s a team that can definitely compete for a Stanley Cup. The hunger is still in that room. That comes from the top guys. Those guys want to win. They want to go out, they want to go back to the top. You can see that. There’s some really disappointed guys in that room. This year was a really good opportunity for this group and unfortunately, we came up short here.”

• Sullivan on the core:

“I believe in the core. This is the best core group of players that I’ve ever been around, bar none. They’re a passionate group, they’re generational talents, they can still compete at an extremely high level and they’ve shown it game in and game out.”

• Crosby put blame on himself when asked about the series:

“For so much of this series, we had the lead. We felt comfortable about our game. We didn’t feel like we were on our heels very much throughout the series. It’s such a small margin for error. I feel like I didn’t make a big play, whether it’s overtime or adding to a lead when we’re up 2-1. I look at some chances that I had, those kind of things are so important. You can’t overlook the importance of those.

”I thought we got better as the series went on. You look at two overtime games obviously that we lost, being able to win one of those would have been huge. I think we did a lot of good things. The last couple of games I thought we played really well. Made some big mistakes. Tonight, I miss a guy on a couple of chances that end up in the back of our net. Just a play here or there was really the difference. I’ve got to come up with that on either side of the puck.”

• Carter on the series:

“For the most part, I thought we played some really good hockey. We couldn’t capitalize on some of our chances throughout the series. Give them a lot of credit. They’ve done it for years. They play a very structured game, a very simple game and patient game. When they get opportunities, they capitalize on them. That’s how they win games. They played a heck of a series as well. It could have went either way to be honest with you, that’s how I feel.”

• Sullivan was asked about his goaltending and largely defended Jarry but not really answering the question:

“You win game as a team, you lose games as a team. It’s not any one position, it’s not any one person’s fault. Everybody is doing their best to be part of the solution. There’s a number of things that go on throughout the course of games. We could all be better. We all have to find ways to have success throughout this. We have to support one another through the process.”

• Carter on the Penguins giving up multiple leads in Game 6:

“Playoff hockey, you’ve got to tighten things up. You get a lead on the road, you’ve got to lock it in. We battled. We battled right to the end. There was no let-up in this group. It’s just a tough one to take right now.”

• Islanders coach Barry Trotz offered a profound thought on the value of teamwork:

“I’ve said to probably every team that I’ve had. If you want to go somewhere fast, go by yourself. If you want to go somewhere far, go with a group.”                                      

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