Monday, February 6

Tim Benz: Blown leads result in blown series as Penguins season ends in New York

The Penguins-Rangers first-round Eastern Conference playoff series lasted seven games and 13 days.

With all that happened during that time, it felt like it lasted 70 games and 130 days. We witnessed:

• A triple-overtime Penguins win in Game 1 and an overtime Rangers win in Game 7.

• The immediate ascension and sudden demise of Penguins goalie Louis Domingue.

• Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin expanding upon his stellar regular season, falling completely apart, then putting himself together again.

• Sidney Crosby owning the first four games of the series, getting knocked out for a game and a half, then returning for Game 7.

But more than anything else, the storyline of the Rangers’ eventual 4-3 series victory should be about one thing: the Penguins’ inability to protect leads.

The Penguins blew 2-0 leads in Games 5 and 6. They blew three different one-goal leads in Game 7.

“Two good teams out there are competing,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Sometimes we had leads. Sometimes they had leads. They had leads in Game 1, and we beat them in overtime. They had a lead tonight and we ended up with a lead in the third period. It’s hockey.”

Goaltending was a part of that problem. Domingue was a third-stringer pressed into service. Tristan Jarry was playing his first game since April 14.

In a Game 7. At Madison Square Garden. Against a talented offensive opponent. With the likely Vezina Trophy winner in the other net.

But enough went wrong beyond the blue paint to allow those leads to evaporate.

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Bryan Rust’s missed open cage in the third period of Game 6. Penguins players repeatedly screening their own goaltenders. Squandered 5-on-3 power plays. Some anemic penalty kills. Own-goals that were kicked and tipped in by the Penguins defensemen. Bad giveaways and ill-advised penalties.

After Game 6, defenseman Mike Matheson said his team needed to avoid getting “rattled” when things went the wrong way.

That seemed to be less of a problem in Game 7 than it was in the previous two contests. Emotional instability didn’t strike me as the team’s biggest problem. New York didn’t overcome its deficits in a massive wave Sunday as it did on Wednesday and Friday.

Instead, Sunday’s loss was marked by a failure to add on to the leads. An inability to extend momentum and build a cushion. Never being markedly better than the Rangers to a point where the Penguins could be comfortably distant and really make New York feel as if it was chasing the game.

“We didn’t get that next one tonight. That probably was the difference,” Crosby said. “I think when we had those leads we played the right way. Tonight I think it was an example of (in) one game, anything can happen. But we didn’t get that extra goal late in the game.”

It’s the second 3-1 blown series lead to the Rangers in eight years. It’s also the third series defeat at the hands of New York since the 2014 postseason. That’s quite a turn, given the Penguins’ history of success against the Rangers in the past when it came to playoff matchups.

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Now the question for the Penguins becomes if this team will be back to the playoffs next season or for the next few to come. After 16 straight years of making the playoffs, next year’s team may be without core members such as Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust. They are all free agents this summer.

And if they leave of their own choosing — or the franchise doesn’t want them back — they’ll go out with losses in five straight playoff series and four consecutive first-round defeats.

“I haven’t even really given it much thought, honestly,” Sullivan said. “Right now just the raw emotion of losing in overtime in a hard-fought series is what’s on my mind.”

That would be an ugly end to a glorious era of Penguins hockey. And a potential reboot around whatever remains of Crosby’s career.

“It’s a possibility. I think we knew that coming into the playoffs,” Crosby said. “But I think you try to not think about that. You hope that we are going to make a good run. And it’s something in the back of your mind. … It’s something that I tried to not talk about too much to be honest with you.”

Crosby may not be ready to go there yet. Unfortunately for him, the organization’s new management group very well may be.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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