expect big changes
The Pittsburgh Penguins don’t expect the sting from their second-round playoff exit to fade anytime soon.
They also don’t expect it to compel general manager Jim Rutherford to give the roster a thorough makeover after the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions’ bid for a three-peat ended at the hands of Washington.
If anything, the setback has given Sidney Crosby and company a chance to put their remarkable run atop the league in perspective.
No team in a generation had won consecutive Cups until Pittsburgh did it last spring and the Penguins went as far as the 1999 Detroit Red Wings and Mario Lemieux-led 1993 Penguins in their own respective quest for a three-peat.
“I think it definitely allows you to appreciate how difficult that was, but also to know we were that close to moving on too, that’s the difficult part,” Crosby said Wednesday as Pittsburgh packed up for the summer.
“I think it definitely gives you a greater appreciation how many times it could have went the other way on a pretty good run.”
The margin is always razor thin in the playoffs. And the Penguins somehow found a way to land on the right side of things through nine playoff series across three springs.
Against the Capitals, however, the bounces — and often the energy — went the other way.
Twice Pittsburgh blew a third-period lead in regulation — something that never happened during the regular season.
Goaltender Matt Murray was usually crisp but not dominant. The scoring depth that made the Penguins an impossibly tough out vanished this time around. Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel did not register a point at even strength against Washington.
Derick Brassard — brought in at the trade deadline to be the third-line center role Nick Bonino filled so capably in 2016 and 2017 — was a nonfactor.
So were Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary, who played beyond their years and scored pivotal goals in the process while ending their first two seasons in the league with a parade through downtown Pittsburgh with the Cup in hand.
Not this time.
The Penguins downplayed the notion they simply ran out of gas after playing more hockey than any other club over the past 32 months.
Maybe, but there’s ample proof the NHL has caught up with the team that built itself on lightning quick aggression when Mike Sullivan took over as head coach in December 2015.
Now it’s time for Pittsburgh to spend the offseason trying to get that extra gear back.
“We’re a good team,” Rutherford said. “And we will be a good team going forward. We’ll have a chance to win again. We have the nucleus to do that.”
How? Let’s take a look back and a look ahead while the Penguins spent the rest of the playoffs watching the pursuit of the Cup on TV, if they bother watching it at all.
Pittsburgh, as is hockey tradition, had several players make a go of it in the playoffs despite undisclosed or non-characterized injuries that limited their effectiveness. The group includes Kessel, Malkin and Brassard. Kessel picked up a career-high 92 points while playing in every single game for the eighth straight season, but had just one goal in 12 playoff games. Sullivan allowed Kessel was dealing with a health issue but added “it was nothing significant, I can tell you that.”
Penguins rookie Zach Aston-Reese, who broke his jaw and suffered a concussion following an illegal hit by Washington’s Tom Wilson in Game 2 of the second round, is currently eating lots of ice cream, sidestepped when asked if the three-game suspension Wilson received was enough but does feel it was a positive step.
“It’s something I guess they’re trying to get rid of and I think moving forward guys need to be a little more aware and have more control of their body when they go in and have hits like that,” Aston-Reese said.
Rutherford, who is as aggressive as they come in terms of trying to upgrade the roster, admitted there’s a chance the Penguins could move an established player or two if necessary.
“It is fair to say that this will be a different looking team by the time we open next season,” Rutherford said. “It doesn’t mean there will be drastic changes ... but they’ll be changes that are necessary.”
Pittsburgh kept forward Daniel Sprong in the minors for most of the year and he responded by scoring a club-rookie record 32 goals for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. It didn’t earn him a promotion during the postseason. That likely won’t be the case next season, when the 21-year-old will be given every chance to make the team out of camp.
“He will be a regular on our team,” Rutherford said.
So will Rutherford. The 69-year-old famously said he might only be around a handful of seasons when he took over in the spring of 2014. Now it appears he’s not headed anywhere.
“I think the best answer is I may be around longer than you guys,” he said with a laugh.