Throughout 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.
Another 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.
“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.
Goalie 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.