Not all playoff losses are created equal.
Sure, the end result might be the same. It might leave you just as disappointed. But the path you take to get there can be very different. That path should — should! — be considered when you are picking up the pieces and trying to figure out what to do next. If you are not careful you can misread a situation or a result and do something that sets your team back and significantly hurts its chances the next season or beyond.
Sometimes you just get beat because you are not good enough or did not play well enough.
Maybe you had some injuries at the wrong time or just ran into the wrong team.
Or perhaps you played well enough to give yourself a chance to win and were simply done in by the ultimate X-Factor and great equalizer come playoff time — goaltending.
That brings us to the 2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins, who for the third year in a row will not be advancing to the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after being eliminated by the New York Islanders in six games on Wednesday night.
[Related: Islanders advance to Second Round]
You will probably hear a lot of narratives in the coming days, weeks, and months as to why they lost. They were not big enough. They were not strong enough. The core players are too old. They did not have the commitment to defense that the Islanders have. They could not finish or score enough goals.
Just about all of them will be wrong.
The bottom line is this: They lost because two goalies did what goalies do come playoff time and significantly impacted the result of a series. In other words, they got goalie’d.
It will be easy to take that statement as an opportunity to pile on Tristan Jarry who had a completely miserable postseason experience. That experience was capped off by a brutal overtime gaffe in a pivotal Game 5, and a terrible Game 6 performance where he never gave his team a chance. He struggled. There is a strong argument to be made that the Penguins played well enough to win Games 1, 5, and 6 of the series, only to lose because they could not get a single save when they needed it.
But it was not just about Jarry struggling.
It was also just as much about the other goalie in the series, New York’s Ilya Sorokin, taking a big step toward the stardom the Islanders have been hoping for. He was sensational, and it seems likely that the net is his moving forward. The combination of him and Barry Trotz is going to make the Islanders a headache to deal with every year for the foreseeable future.
When one team’s goalie struggles, and the other team’s goalie plays at an exceptional level, there is not much else that is going to happen in a series that is going to change the result.
When you look at the numbers in this series the Penguins had a significant edge in most categories, including shot attempts, shots on goal, scoring chances, expected goals, and high-danger chances. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said on Wednesday that outside of one game where they would have liked a better effort (almost certainly Game 4) they really liked their game every night in the series. And he is right to think that way, because there was nothing wrong with the way they played. They just didn’t get the result.
Now it is going to be up to the new management team of general manager Ron Hextall and president of hockey operations Brian Burke to figure out why they didn’t get the result and take the appropriate action. And that is where things are going to get interesting.
They have no loyalty to anybody in the organization. They did not win championships with any of these players or coaches. It is a fresh start and a clean slate for them to operate without emotion. Do they think this is a team that needs broken up after another early exit? Or do they see an otherwise strong team that is still a contender that simply lost a goaltending battle in a best of seven series?
There already seems to be something brewing as Burke and Hextall seem to have a different vision for what the team should look like when compared to the head coach. Burke has repeatedly talked about getting bigger and having a team that “doesn’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” He has always wanted teams that play a certain style and have a certain build to them. That seems to run counter to the way Sullivan wants the Penguins to play, and he even made the comment after Game 6 that they didn’t lose the series because they were not big enough.
But if you conclude, rightfully, that this series was won and lost in the goal crease, why would you want want — or need — to make that sort of seismic shift with the roster? For starters, Crosby, Malkin, and Letang are all still high level players. Maybe not as dominant as they were five years ago, but still upper tier players. They are still the foundation and players you can win with. They have at least a couple of more runs in them. Aside from the fact that you would almost certainly lose any trade you make with them, there are not many examples of teams that trade a player of that caliber and get better as a result of it. If you trade one of them, you are signaling that you are starting the rebuild. This is not a team that needs to do that just yet because, despite the results this postseason, it is still good enough to compete.
The supporting cast around Crosby, Malkin, and Letang is as good as it has been since the back-to-back Stanley Cups. They go four deep at center, they can roll four lines, and while the defense is not exceptional and has its flaws, it is still very good. Certainly good enough to compete if they just get some goaltending. If you can see that and still think you need to make sweeping changes you are not acting rationally, you are just making knee-jerk changes for the sake of changes.
This team does not need a teardown, or a shakeup, or a break up.
It needs goaltending first and foremost. It needs to navigate the expansion draft and figure out who goes to Seattle. And if an opportunity to improve presents itself, it should be explored. But beyond that? It should not be looking to dismantle things. It needs the rationality that does not always exist after a postseason loss to know why they did not win.
Goaltending. It will cover the flaws you do have, and it will make you think you have flaws that do not exist.
If the Penguins are not careful with how they approach this offseason they could find themselves being blinded by the latter, and fully closing their championship “window” before they need to do so.