The Pittsburgh Penguins raced through the fall, but limped through the winter and an all-too-brief spring. The faces, the pace, the results all changed when the health issues and injuries that began with defenseman Olli Maatta’s cancer surgery never let up.
“Usually you go through a span of injuries and you get through it and you kind of settle in,” Crosby said. “We never really got through it. We went through the end of the year into the playoffs.”
The margin between the Penguins and the New York Rangers proved only lopsided in the result — a 4-1 win for the Presidents’ Trophy winners in their opening-round playoff series. Yet Pittsburgh and New York played 17 periods of taut, tight hockey. All four Ranger wins came by the same 2-1 score. A bounce here, a bounce there and maybe things are different.
Pittsburgh lurched into the postseason without defensemen Mattaa, Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff and winger Pascal Dupuis. That makes it harder to upset the team with the best record in the league.
Now, the team heads into a longer-than-anticipated offseason that could lead to another summer of upheaval. Not that the Penguins planned on dwelling much on what’s to come after Friday night’s overtime loss and the franchise’s earliest playoff exit in eight years.
“You look at the way your players play and you can ask so much of them,” coach Mike Johnston said. “You ask them to battle, ask them to compete and play well defensively. You look at all those things and we were really good in the series, really good. It’s just a fine line with all those 2-1 games.”
It’s been the wrong side of the line all too often since raising the Stanley Cup in 2009.
The team fired general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma last year and brought in Johnston and general manager Jim Rutherford to make the necessary tweaks. Rutherford turned over more than half the roster but after a strong start the Penguins spent the last five months going through healthy bodies. There was also a bout with the mumps and an inability to generate consistent momentum on offense.
The Penguins finished 19th in scoring even with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both in the top 20 in points. Pittsburgh managed more than four goals just once over its final 20 games. And while goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury did his best to keep the Penguins competitive against New York, in the end it wasn’t nearly close to enough.
“I felt when we entered the playoffs, we cleaned the slate and said ‘Hey, this is what we’ve got right now and we’ve got a tough series on our hands,” Johnston said. “I thought we handled the series really well.”
Now Johnston and his players will find out if management will handle another disappointing spring as gracefully. Johnston has another year left on his contract and there are several personnel decisions that have to be made with players like defenseman Paul Martin ready to hit free agency. It’s been six long years since that giddy June when Crosby led Pittsburgh to a championship.
It remains the franchise’s last victory parade — and the last year the Penguins won a game beyond the conference semifinals. Johnston will wait a few days before sorting through the rubble of dashed expectations. While this was his first season as a head coach at the NHL level, he’s been around the game long enough to know trying to predict the future is unwise. Maybe Pittsburgh co-owner Mario Lemieux will decide it’s time to really blow things up. Or maybe the team will return in the fall with the same core and the same high standards.
“I’m sure there’s going to be lots of talk about it,” center Brandon Sutter said. “But as players we’re not going to worry about it. We’ve got a good group here and unfortunately it ended a little bit too soon.”