Good Season for Pittsburgh Penguins, Terribly Disappointing End

pittsburgh-penguinsThroughout the lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season, one thing was clear about the Pittsburgh Penguins: they could score goals. All year, opposing defenses and goalies had to deal with a nightmare lineup that included Sidney Crosby (56 points), Chris Kunitz (52 pts), Pascal Dupius (38 pts), Kris Letang (38 pts), James Neal (36 pts) and Evgeni Malkan (33 pts). This being said, if there was one thing Pittsburgh was destined to do right in their Eastern Conference Finals series against the Boston Bruins, it was score goals….at least in theory.

However, theory definitely didn’t meet reality in this series as Boston pulled off an improbable sweep. Not only is it amazing that the Penguins failed to win a single game in this matchup, but they only scored two goals over the four-game stretch. Sure Boston’s defense is good, but is it this good!?

As their series against Pittsburgh showed, Boston’s defense is better than good – it’s exceptional. They did pretty much everything right defensively and Tuukka Rask was outstanding in the goal. Rask was especially noteworthy here because he faced the league’s best offense for four straight games and came out with two shutouts and 0.5 GAA.

Sidney Crosby, Anton KhudobinAnother point worth making here is how the Penguins were rendered completely ineffective on the power play. Boston is one of the best penalty-killing teams in the league, and they put these talents on display after holding Pittsburgh scoreless on power plays.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning in all of this that, despite not winning a game or ever having a lead, the Penguins did make the series much closer than it appeared. Only Game 2 got out of hand (6-1 loss), and Pittsburgh fought hard to keep every contest close.

Boston coach Claude Julien hit upon this topic during the Game 4 post-game press conference. “This series here against Pittsburgh was not a 4-0 series,” he said. “I really felt that the breaks went our way in this series on a lot of occasions. You just have to look back right at the end of the game, where Malkin has the open net and Zdeno (Chara) makes the arm save. They dinged some shots off the post. If those go in, it’s a different series.

sidney-crosby“That’s the unfortunate part of this game, you know, sometimes as a team, you don’t get the breaks and you wonder what you have to do. I think that’s where Pittsburgh was a little snake-bitten that way, and we were the team that was taking advantage of our breaks. That’s not to say we didn’t play well, because when you allow two goals to a team like that in four games, your team certainly deserves some credit. I think defensively our guys did a great job against their top players of taking away time and space.”

Crosby also offered some post-series analysis and gave Boston credit for their defensive pressure. “You know what? There weren’t times where we were worried, to be honest with you,” he stated. “Where we felt like we were losing momentum. There’s times where you get three, four shifts where they’re hemming you in and you feel like they’ve got a lot of pressure. There wasn’t really any point besides that second game where we felt like that.

“If you look back and chances are there, I mean, you try to fight, you try to get through to the net and get rebounds, and sometimes they come to you and sometimes they don’t. Obviously, you score two goals as a team in four games, and personally to go without any points, it doesn’t sit very well.”

Now the Pittsburgh Penguins organization has a long offseason to think about what went wrong in a season that was otherwise so right. We’re likely to see changes on the roster, although it’s not clear what changes are coming.

dan-bylsmaGoalie Marc-Andre Fleury is likely headed somewhere else after being pulled in the first round of the playoffs. He didn’t play again until spelling relief in the 6-1 Game 2 loss to the Bruins. Defender Kris Letang is another guy who might not be back. He’ll be a free agent this year and will command top-dollar in the free agent market. Based on how he was mostly a non-factor in the Eastern Conference Finals, there’s no given that Pittsburgh would be willing to pay him a huge contract.

Finally, there’s head coach Dan Bylsma, whose job security isn’t exactly the greatest right now. Following a Stanley Cup title in 2009, Bylsma’s Pittsburgh teams have been underwhelming after two first round exits, a second round exit, and this season’s disastrous Boston series. Seeing as how he’s had plenty of talent to work with in recent years, nobody is giving Bylsma a pass for poor playoff performances.

Whatever changes are made to Pittsburgh’s roster/coaching staff from now until next season, you can bet that the focus will be on propelling one of the NHL’s most stocked teams into the Stanley Cup Finals – a place where many people thought that they’d be this year.

2013 NHL Playoffs: Conference Finals Predictions

sidney-crosbyWe’re now just one round away from the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals as the playoffs have been whittled down to four teams. In the Western Conference, the defending champion Los Angeles Kings face off against the Chicago Blackhawks. This is truly a battle of two worn-out clubs since the Kings and Blackhawks each survived grueling seven-game series. Interestingly enough, they both won their Game 7 matchups by a score of 2-1.

As for the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins will do battle in yet another series against each other. Unlike Chicago and L.A., these teams coasted by their Conference Semi-Finals opponents. The Bruins took out the New York Rangers in just five games, while Pittsburgh won their series over the Ottawa Senators by the same margin.

With four talented teams remaining, it’s anybody’s guess as to who will be moving onto the Stanley Cup Finals. And we’d like to guess ourselves with the following Conference Finals previews.

L.A. Kings vs. Chicago Blackhawks

corey-crawfordThis is a pretty tantalizing matchup that pits the ’10 NHL champion Blackhawks against the ’12 champion Kings. Chicago comes into this series via a dramatic comeback that saw them down 3-1 against the Wings. The Blackhawks were able to reestablish control of the puck later in the series to win and set up this matchup.

For the most part, Chicago goalie Corey Crawford has played pretty well in these playoffs. However, L.A. goalie Jonathan Quick appears to have regained his form from last season’s championship playoff run. He has a .948 save percentage, which is slightly better than his .946 mark from ’12. So when it comes to the net, we have to give the Kings an advantage.

However, even Quick hasn’t been able to help Los Angeles win on the road. The Kings are a disappointing 1-5 away from their home ice, which doesn’t bode well as they travel to Chicago. They were able to overcome a 2-0 deficit against the St. Louis Blues in the first round; don’t expect the same forgiveness from the Blackhawks.

jonathan-quickOn offense, Chicago really needs Jonathan Toews to regain form. The Chicago captain has scored just six points through the first 12 playoff games – a mark which only places him fifth on his own team. Patrick Kane is another Blackhawks player who needs to pick up his production. The winger has nine points thus far, which isn’t bad; however, it’s definitely off his regular season pace of 55 points in 47 games.

Los Angeles presents a pretty tough frontline of Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. These guys have been solid throughout the playoffs and will look to overwhelm Crawford in the net. And the Kings’ frontline vs. Crawford could be the deciding factor in this series.

Prediction: L.A. wins the series 4-3

Boston Bruins vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

This is definitely a case of offense vs. defense, with Pittsburgh easily playing the role of offensive juggernauts. Sidney Crosby has scored 15 points in 10 playoff games, but he isn’t the only one doing damage. As a team, the Penguins have averaged 4.27 goals in the postseason, which is easily a league-best.

sidney-crosbyBut Pittsburgh does have chinks in their armor, and they start with goaltending. The Penguins had to switch from Marc-Andre Fleury to Tomas Vokoun in the first round because of this issue. And while Vokoun has done a great job (1.85 GAA, .941 SV%) through six games, it’s never good when you need to switch out a starter mid-playoffs.

Moving to Boston, they feature an aggressive, defensive-minded approach. Veteran Zdeno Chara has logged 29 minutes per game and is critical to stopping the opposition. This defense can pack an offensive punch too, as rookie Torey Krug showed against the Rangers. He was incredible after scoring four goals and dishing out five assists in just five games.

Boston goalie Tuukka Rask has been solid with (2.22 GAA, .928 SV%) in the 2013 NHL Playoffs. However, solid won’t be enough to stop the Penguins’ extremely deep attack. Expect Pittsburgh to overcome their goalie and defensive issues while overwhelming Rask in the process.

Prediction: Pittsburgh wins the series 4-2