Penguins’ playoff exit was two years in the making

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The Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders was no fluke.

It was a result they earned and was due to them being outplayed and soundly beaten in pretty much every phase of the game by a Islanders team that looked faster, crisper, and smoother.

It was also not the result of something that simply happened overnight.

On the off day between their losses in Games 3 and 4, defender Justin Schultz nailed a big part of the problem when he said this: “Our identity has changed over the years. We play fast and get the puck up quick. That’s what we do best. We haven’t done that this series.”

But when did it change, and more importantly, why did it change?

It has taken the Penguins two years to reach the point where they needed to wait until Game 81 of the regular season to simply make the playoffs, and then could not even scratch out a single win once they got there.

To find when it all began you can probably go back to May 28, 2017.

At the time, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions and just 24 hours away from beginning another Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators that they would win in six games, becoming the first team in a generation to successfully repeat as champions. Their recipe and identity was clear. They played fast, they didn’t let anything throw them off their game, and coach Mike Sullivan had driven home a “Just Play” mantra that became the calling card of their 2016 championship run. It applied to just about any situation.

An injury to a significant player? Just play.

Don’t like a call that was or was not made on the ice? Just play.

Facing some adversity and down in a series? Just. Play.

In the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships the Penguins had become a deeply flawed team that was short on depth around its superstars and had rapidly developed a tendency to unravel whenever things didn’t go their way. They were almost like petulant children that would lose their composure when calls went against them and become almost infatuated with responding to even the slightest physical altercation. They reached rock bottom in this regard during the 2012 and 2013 postseason losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins when they seemed to be playing a game where hits and responses were worth more than goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Starting in 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford started to reshape the team into something different.

He found the right depth players to go around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and he made a series of trades and call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make the team faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. Combined with Sullivan’s mid-season takeover in 2015, it was a perfect storm that allowed them overwhelm opponents and catch fire sometime around February.

They never slowed down on their way to a championship.

While the 2016-17 season wasn’t quite as dominant and had to rely on goaltending a little more in the playoffs, the same formula was still in play.

Despite all of the winning, Rutherford was still unsatisfied with something.

He was unsatisfied with the way his star players were being treated physically. In each of those postseasons the Penguins had to go through opponents that were not shy about targeting their stars. Crosby’s postseason run-ins with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented, and they had two consecutive postseason encounters with Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. In the Eastern Conference Final that season there were several incidents against the Ottawa Senators that drew the team’s ire.

The day before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final began, Rutherford offered a look into where the team was going to be headed when he sounded off in an interview with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. This is the key part:

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Emphasis added.

“We’re going to have to get one or two guys.”

He doubled down on it just days after the team won the Stanley Cup.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup. That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

That was the moment they started down the wrong path. Suddenly, a team that had become defined by playing through things and not responding was going to get “one or two guys” to … respond. The Penguins hadn’t even finished their run at the top of the league as champions when they made the decision to start slowly deviating off of the path that got them there, all in the name of retribution and the misguided idea of “deterrence.”

On draft night that year, the Penguins flipped their first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, a trade that has turned out to be a significant loss for the Penguins in more ways than one, and it was a bad idea from the start. Not only did they move back 20 spots in the draft, but Sundqvist has turned into a solid third-line center for the Blues (a position the Penguins spent two years and countless assets trying to fill) while Reaves clearly never fit in with the Penguins’ style of play.

Sullivan barely used him, it shortened the team’s bench, and he was ultimately traded halfway through the season in the massive and complicated deal for Derick Brassard.

The problem with that sequence wasn’t necessarily the trade itself, but what it represented.

What it represented was a philosophical shift from the recipe that worked, and there is nothing that has happened since that trade that has put them back on track.

Pretty much every significant roster move the Penguins have made since then (and there have been A LOT of them) has revolved around getting bigger, stronger players, especially on the blue line where Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson were the significant additions over the past year. It resulted in a defense that lacks mobility, doesn’t move the puck well, and has simply zapped them of a lot of their transition game. Add that to the departures of forwards like Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and the team no longer has the speed and skating advantage that it used to have over its opponents.

The most confusing thing about all of it is the roster construction and many of the moves seem — emphasis on seem — to be at odds with the way the coach has wanted the team to play from the day he arrived behind the bench. I know nothing of the working relationship between Rutherford and Sullivan and whether they remain on the same page as to how the team is built, but the optics of it all just seem strange.

They paid a significant price for Reaves, and the coach didn’t play him. The general manager championed the signing of Johnson all season, and despite playing in all 82 regular season games was deemed to be not worth a roster spot in the first game of the playoffs. A team that wants to play fast and beat teams in transition and with puck possession, suddenly has an inconsistent transition and possession game because the players on the back end can’t make the necessary plays to feed it. And that doesn’t even get into general manager’s fascination with trying to even the score with Wilson in Washington after he knocked Zach Astron-Reese out of the playoffs a year ago (something that ended up getting Oleksiak injured).

Make no mistake, there were other factors at play throughout this season and the playoffs that produced this early exit. The forwards, as a whole, don’t help out enough in the defensive zone. The Islanders did a great job shutting down Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Letang and Schultz, the two defenders on the roster that can still play close to the Penguins’ style, each had a bad series.

But a bad series for individual players happens, and sometimes they are even understandable and defensible because even the best players have bad stretches.

What is not understandable and defensible is willingly taking yourself away from something that worked. That is what the Penguins did, and it is a big part of why their season ended up going the way it did.

The moves they make this summer will tell us a lot as to what they learned from it.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Playoff picture after Thursday: Only one spot left

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For the final week of the 2018-19 NHL regular season we will take an updated look at the Stanley Cup Playoff picture — what the standings look like, the potential matchups, who clinched, and set the stage for Friday’s biggest games.

The Avalanche clinched the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, while the teams above them in the Central Division are jockeying for positioning, with the Predators on top, at least for now. The Penguins and Hurricanes clinched spots out East, while the Capitals locking down the Metropolitan Division was rough on Montreal, who lost to the Capitals in regulation. That Habs loss made it a big day for the Blue Jackets … who didn’t even play on Thursday.

For some big numbers and highlights, check The Buzzer.

p – Presidents’ Trophy y – division x – clinched (via NHL.com)

Thursday’s East playoff clinchers

  • The Carolina Hurricanes clinched a spot, their first since 2008-09. They are currently ranked as the first wild-card team, but have a chance to pass Pittsburgh and take the third Metro spot, depending upon how the final days of the season pan out. It’s also possible that Columbus could push Carolina to the second wild-card spot.
  • For the 13th season in a row, the Penguins clinched a playoff spot. As mentioned before, they could lose their current spot (third in the Metro) to Carolina. That said, the Penguins also have a chance to jump to second in the Metro, though the Islanders reduced those odds by beating the Panthers on Thursday.
  • The Capitals clinched the Metropolitan Division title, and left the Canadiens’ playoff hopes dreadfully wounded.
z – clinched conference x – clinched playoff berth (via NHL.com)

Thursday’s West playoff clinchers

  • The Avalanche clinched the final playoff spot in the West. As you can see above, the Coyotes stand at 86 points, so they’d max out at 88 if they won their last game. It’s unlikely, but there’s a slight chance the Avs could overtake the Stars for the first wild-card spot. Considering how much of a grind it was for Colorado to lock this spot down, the Avs would probably be wiser just to rest Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog (with Landeskog’s health being easy to question, considering that he seemed to return to the lineup far earlier than expected).
  • Nothing clinched beyond spots there, but the Central Division title race is coming down to the wire. The Predators have the edge after winning and the Jets losing in overtime. The Blues took care of their end by winning, giving them a shot at either the division crown or a round of home-ice advantage.

THURSDAY’S SCORES

BUF 5 – OTT 2
TBL 3 – TOR 1
NYI 2 – FLA 1 (SO)
PIT 4 – DET 1
WSH 2 – MTL 1
CAR 3 – NJD 1
STL 7 – PHI 3
NSH 3 – VAN 2
BOS 3 – MIN 0
COL 3 – WPG 2 (OT)
SJS 3 – EDM 2
ARI 4 – VGK 1

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs — series clinched

Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Sharks vs. Golden Knights — series clinched
Predators vs. Stars

FRIDAY’S BIGGEST GAMES

Blue Jackets at Rangers (7 p.m. ET): If the Blue Jackets win any of their next two games, they’re in. They can also crawl in by gaining two points over those final two games, but considering the exhausting few months they’ve had — both on and off the ice — it sure would be more pleasant to just win on Friday, right? The Rangers have every incentive to lose out, as maybe they’d fall behind the Sabres and/or Red Wings and improve their draft lottery odds. It’s tough to imagine there being a lot of incentive to spite John Tortorella (did Marc Staal and Henrik Lundqvist like Torts??), but then again, the Red Wings were just on a six-game winning streak, so it’s also not so easy to get players to tank.

Stars at Blackhawks (8:30 p.m. ET): This could be a tricky “trap” game in that the Blackhawks are a proud bunch, and also because as flawed as Chicago has been this season, that offense can often be explosive. If the Blackhawks make this about trading goals, consider that the Stars have only averaged 2.56 goals per game this season, the fourth-worst average in the NHL. They’re the only team in the bottom 12 to secure a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs because they’re even better at preventing goals, but just saying. As mentioned earlier in this post, there’s a remote chance Colorado overtakes Dallas for the higher wild-card spot, so Dallas has at least some motivation. Enough to value “staying sharp” over resting key, leaned-upon players? That’s up to Jim Montgomery.

(Personally, I’d rest the likes of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, so they’re less likely to be horse-blank when the games matter.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Rangers visit Flyers on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday afternoon’s matchup between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Pride will be at stake between the Rangers and Flyers when they meet in the first game on Star Sunday on NBC.

The Flyers were officially eliminated from the playoffs after a tough 5-2 loss on Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers, meanwhile, have been out of contention for a while, missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in 15 years.

“I think the poor start is the reason that we’re in this position,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said after Saturday’s game. “Every year it feels like it’s the same story. We need to figure it out…we know we can make the playoffs and be a dangerous team, but we can believe whatever we want. We just have to go out there and make it happen.”

For New York, stopping the Flyers’ six-game winning streak against them — including their three previous meetings this season — will be top of the order. The Flyers haven’t swept the season series since the 1984-85 season.

Philly put up a valiant effort this season after firing the general manager and head coach they began the season with. The Rangers began the season on a rebuilding foot, having brought in David Quinn while selling off several key pieces at the trade deadline.

Despite where both teams find themselves, there won’t be lacking for motivation.

“You want to win hockey games, especially when you’re playing a division rival,” Quinn said.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12 P.M. ET – NBC]

WHAT: New York Rangers at Philadelphia Flyers
WHERE: Wells Fargo Center
WHEN: Sunday, March 31, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Rangers-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

RANGERS

Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Vladislav NamestnikovFilip ChytilVinni Lettieri
Jimmy VeseyLias AnderssonRyan Strome
Brendan LemieuxBrett HowdenBoo Nieves

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk
Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Brendan SmithNeal Pionk

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

FLYERS

James van RiemsdykNolan Patrick — Claude Giroux
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierJakub Voracek
Ryan HartmanScott LaughtonTravis Konecny
Michael RafflCorban KnightPhil Varone

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbeherePhilippe Myers
Robert HaggRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

Kenny Albert (play-by-play), Ed Olczyk (analyst) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Liam McHugh will anchor studio coverage alongside Mike Milbury and Keith Jones.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Rangers host Capitals on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Washington sits in a tie for first in the Metro with the New York Islanders (Isles have one game in hand) as they look to be headed back to the postseason for the fifth straight time and what would be an 11th appearance in the last 12 seasons. The Capitals have won five of their last six games and this is the second game of a thre-game road trip after beating the Islanders, 3-1, on Friday (Washington plays at Philadelphia on Wednesday on NBCSN at 7:30 p.m. ET).

Alex Ovechkin leads the team in points (75) and paces the entire league with 45 goals (Patrick Kane – second with 40) as he pursues another Rocket Richard trophy – aiming to break a tie with Bobby Hull (seven) and become the first player in NHL history to finish atop the goal-scoring race eight times. With Ovechkin’s goal on Friday, he became the first player in NHL history to score 45-plus goals in 10 seasons:

The Rangers are coming off a 4-2 loss to Montreal on Friday – their third straight loss as they are headed towards missing the postseason for the second consecutive year – after a stretch that saw them make the playoffs 11 times in a 12-season span from 2006-2017.

Henrik Lundqvist turned 37 years old on Saturday. The longtime starting goalie is in a bit of slump having lost seven of his last eight starts (1-5-2, 3.14 GAA). His record sits at 17-17-9, and he’s currently sporting a 3.04 goals against average and .907 save percentage, both of which would be career-worsts if the season ended today.  King Henrik is just three wins away from his 14th straight 20-win season (in as many years in the NHL). If he can reach that mark, he’ll become the fourth goalie in NHL history to record at least 14 seasons with 20 wins, along with Patrick Roy (17), Martin Brodeur (16) and Ed Belfour (15).

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12 P.M. ET – NBC]

What: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: Sunday, March 3, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
Live stream: You can watch the Capitals-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Jakub VranaNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerBrett Connolly
Andre BurakovskyNic DowdTravis Boyd

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

RANGERS
Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadJimmy Vesey
Vladislav NamestnikovRyan StromeJesper Fast
Brendan LemieuxLias AnderssonPavel Buchnevich
Brendan SmithBrett HowdenFilip Chytil

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk
Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Libor Hajek – Neal Pionk

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick (play-by-play), Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from New York. Liam McHugh, Mike Milbury and Keith Jones will handle studio coverage.

WATCH LIVE: Rangers host Maple Leafs on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Maple Leafs won a pivotal division clash Saturday with a 4-3 overtime victory in Montreal to remain in second place in the Atlantic Division. John Tavares scored his team-leading 33rd goal (also T-second in NHL) in OT with a beautiful backhand past Carey Price.

With two points yesterday (goal, assist), Tavares has three straight multi-point games and reached the 60-point mark (33G, 27A in 54 GP), two games shy of his fastest season to 60 points (52 GP in 2013-14 w/ New York Islanders).

Toronto has won four straight games and has a six-game point streak (5-0-1).

On Friday night when the 1993-94 Stanley Cup champion Rangers team was honored for the 25th anniversary of their title, the current Blueshirts fell 3-0 to the Hurricanes. It was scoreless entering the third period before Warren Foegele scored the eventual game-winner and Carolina tallied two empty- netters. Petr Mrazek made 27 saves for Carolina in the shutout, though defenseman Jaccob Slavin also rescued two would-be goals on the doorstep.

The Rangers were shut out for the 5th time this season, tied for second most in the league.

Despite being shut out on Friday, the Rangers top line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello has been one of the hottest trios in the league. Since January 12, they have combined for 41 points (19G, 22A) in the last 11 games.

Zibanejad has already set career highs with 53 pts and 31 assists this season. His previous career marks were 51 pts and 30 assists, both in 2015-16 with Ottawa. He is on pace for 80 pts, which would be the highest tally by a Rangers player since Marian Gaborik had 86 in 2009-10.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Toronto Maple Leafs at New York Rangers
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: Sunday, Feb. 10, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Patrick MarleauAuston MatthewsKasperi Kapanen
Connor BrownNazem KadriWilliam Nylander
Par LindholmFrederik GauthierAndreas Johnsson

Jake MuzzinMorgan Rielly
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottRon Hainsey

Starting goalie: Garret Sparks

RANGERS
Chris Kreider – Mika Zibanejad – Mats Zuccarello
Pavel BuchnevichKevin HayesJesper Fast
Filip ChytilRyan StromeVladislav Namestnikov
Jimmy VeseyBoo Nieves – Vinni Lettieri

Brady SkjeiAdam McQuaid
Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Brendan SmithKevin Shattenkirk

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass analyst) will have the call from Madison Square Garden. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.