Thursday, May 13, 2010

Penguins post-mortem


Good decision to have held off writing this until today rather than in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday night when I was drunk as hell. Twitter followers might've gotten a good idea of my mental state last night, though I can honestly say I don't remember anything I Tweeted last night.

Pittsburgh's second-round defeat to Montreal in seven games boils down to a few very simple items. First and foremost, credit must be given where it's due, and the Canadiens played their game much better than the Penguins played theirs, Montreal wanted it more and worked harder.

Looking beyond that, though, reveals some other issues from the Pittsburgh end. One is the Penguins had too many players under-perform at the same time. Ninety percent (at least) of the fans will blame only one person, and that's goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the same man who almost singlehandedly won Game 6 and 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2009 and set the tone for Game 7 against Washington in the second round.

With a handful of exceptions, Fleury was not "bad" in my opinion. But nor was he good consistently. Without going back to look at every goal allowed this postseason, it seemed he didn't give up as many junk goals against Montreal as he did against Ottawa in the first round. There were times, however, when he needed to make a clutch save and he didn't.

It didn't help that Pittsburgh was guilty of far too many egregious turnovers, many coming in the defensive zone or neutral ice, that allowed Montreal some Grade A opportunities that left Fleury out to dry. Porous defensive positioning and effort (Alex Goligoski on Maxim Lapierre in Game 6, Sergei Gonchar on Travis Moen in Game 7 to name two specific incidents) also didn't help. Compare that to Montreal's collective defensive effort and it was little contest.

Fleury wasn't good enough this series. Neither was Sidney Crosby (one goal), nor Evgeni Malkin (one goal), nor Bill Guerin (two fairly meaningless goals.) Except for Malkin a tad, I'm not hearing too much criticism of those guys. They were the team's three leading goal scorers (Guerin, with 21, was tied with Jordan Staal) and between them, barely averaged one goal in the series.

There aren't many circumstances under which a team will win a playoff series when its three best offensive players combined for all of four goals in a seven-game series. Conversely, the Canadiens' stars - Mike Cammalleri, Jaroslav Halak, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta - showed up to play. Pittsburgh's didn't.

That leads to the second main issue for the Penguins. They just weren't that good.

When looking at this team's roster, it's almost amazing to think they contended for a division title and won a playoff round. Crosby had a stellar season but that was basically it. Malkin's head was firmly entrenched in the clouds the entire season, and it's a testament to his ability that he had an awful season when he registered 77 points in 67 games. Some teams' leading scorer won't produce at that rate.

Malkin also took far too many penalties, taking him off the ice, killing the team's momentum, and generally frustrating everyone. And when Malkin is playing like that, Pittsburgh won't go too far.

It's not because Malkin is the true MVP and leader of the team. (Anyone who watched this season will laugh at that notion.) It's because without both its stars playing at star level, Pittsburgh has almost zero threatening offensive talent.

Crosby and Malkin can make players around them better. But while I love what Pascal Dupuis and Max Talbot bring to the table, neither one should be cast in a top-six role. Both regularly played there, Talbot more so in the playoffs.

From the standpoint of fan expectations, the worst thing that could've happened to Talbot was scoring two goals in Game 7 of the Final, because now many fans expect him to score left and right. They fail to recognize Talbot for what he is: A third- or fourth-line grinder who will produce 10 to 14 goals a season.

That's what Dupuis is. That's what Ruslan Fedotenko is. On the Penguins, they're playing on the top two lines.

That's because the Penguins are built down the middle. With so much money tied up in Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal ($21.4 million combined), the wing corps will always be weak unless there's homegrown talent, which at this point is not ready. So it's imperative that those three centers, mainly Crosby and Malkin, don't have a season like Malkin did. The Penguins will always be a threat as long as those two guys, and Fleury, play like they're capable of. When one of them - or in this year's case, two of them - fail to do that, then 2010 happens. An early trip to the golf course.

In the salary cap era, GM Ray Shero basically has to hope he catches lightning in a bottle at the wing position, like with Marian Hossa in the 2008 playoffs. With the Alexei Ponikarovsky acquisition, he didn't even catch a lightning bug in a bottle. Or, if he did, he forgot to poke air holes in the lid.

Many things went right for Pittsburgh in 2009. Crosby and Malkin both played at high levels. Fedotenko channeled his 2004 self. Guerin drank from the Fountain of Youth. Fleury was clutch when he needed to be. Talbot lived up to his Superstar status he jokingly referred to himself as in a local car commercial several years ago. Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill were employed.

Of that list of items, only one - Crosby's high level - happened in 2010, and even that disappeared in the second round. Malkin was awful. Fedotenko suffered through the worst season of his career, which isn't all that dissimilar to most of his other seasons. Guerin and Gonchar started to show their age. Fleury, with a handful of exceptions, was not clutch. Talbot didn't even earn one of those star stickers, let alone be an actual superstar. Scuderi is working on his tan in California. Gill worked for the enemy.

Adding it all up, it's no surprise the team is golfing in mid-May. There were hopes that some players would step up their game when the playoffs began - mainly Malkin - and none of those hopes were realized.

The disheartening part was the first 30 minutes of Game 7. Mellon Arena might've been the loudest I've ever heard it in the last six seasons, but the Penguins didn't show any desperation or urgency until the score was already 4-0. Distressing considering the coaching and leadership was exactly the same as the ones that won the Stanley Cup less than a year ago. I envisioned both a win or a narrow loss in Game 7. I didn't expect to get blown out of the water.

To lay blame on any one player (I'm speaking to the Fleury haters here) is to display a lack of knowledge and rationality. The loss, both in Game 7 specifically and the series in general, was a total team effort. You win as a team, you lose as a team.

But hey, the team can't make the Cup finals, or even the conference finals, every season. It sucks when it doesn't, but life goes on.

On the bright side of things, I can now turn my attention fully to the World Cup in June. And I save a few bucks on unused playoff tickets.

(Also, Philadelphia beats Boston, 4-1, in Game 7.)

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