2018 NHL Playoffs: Five reasons the Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated by the Washington Capitals
Breaking down where things went wrong for the Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins are dead. The dreams of a three-peat in Pittsburgh are over after the Pens were eliminated for the first time in three years at the hands of a team that they've so proudly owned for years. The Washington Capitals took down the and will for the first time in the Alexander Ovechkin era.
Let's take a look at where things went wrong for the Penguins.
Crosby's line pulled all the weight
The Penguins scored 14 goals in this series. Sidney Crosby was on the ice for 13 of them.
Crosby and Jake Guentzel have proved to be a two-headed monster on the Penguins' top line over the past two postseason runs, but Pittsburgh didn't get enough contributions at even-strength behind them in this series.
That lone goal without Crosby on the ice came from defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, who threw a point shot past a screened Braden Holtby in Game 5. The only forward to record an even strength point away from Crosby was Derick Brassard, who had the primary assist on Oleksiak's goal.
Evgeni Malkin, who missed the first two games of the series with a lower-body injury, had three points in four games, but all of them came on the power play. He was a minus-6 in the series.
Phil Kessel had four assists on the power play, but didn't score at all and had zero even-strength points. He was a minus-5.
The rest of the Penguins' lineup -- including names like Carl Hagelin, Conor Sheary, Riley Sheahan, Bryan Rust, and Zach Aston-Reese -- contributed pretty much nothing at all offensively in the series.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan tried a little bit of line shuffling to ignite his team, but it didn't work out. We all know how good Crosby is, but you've got to have more than one line going to win in the playoffs. It's sort of amazing the series even went six games considering the lack of production throughout the rest of the lineup.
Remember when the Capitals began the playoffs with Philipp Grubauer as their starting goaltender? That seems like ages ago, mostly because of how well Braden Holtby has played since replacing him.
Holtby, who has had his fair share of struggles against the Penguins in postseasons past, was a rock in this series. He stopped 151 of 164 shots against (.921 save-percentage) in the series, and 122 of 131 at even-strength (.931). At points it seemed like the only way to beat him was via deflections or screens in front. He made a number of high-danger stops that kept the Capitals in games.
Meanwhile, on the other end, Matt Murray wasn't the guy that we've seen him be over the Penguins' past two championship runs.
He finished the series stopping 152 of 168 shots against (.905 save-percentage) and had a number of questionable goals against, including this stinker in the elimination Game 6.
It's almost impossible to win in the playoffs without good goaltending, and the Penguins have been blessed to have the luxury of two very good goaltenders over the past few runs. This year, Murray just wasn't good enough. He certainly wasn't the only problem, but he was part of it.
Secondary contributions from the Capitals
One of the things that has driven me crazy over the years is how much blame Alex Ovechkin takes for the Capitals' postseason woes, despite the fact that he's been a solid postseason performer for much of his career. In reality, they've often gone down because of a lack of secondary contributions.
Not this year.
While Ovechkin was quite solid -- he had a team-high seven points -- the Capitals also had other guys step up in big spots, including some names you might not necessarily expect. Their 21-year-old winger Jakub Vrana scored two game-winning goals, Lars Eller had four even-strength points, and guys like Brett Connolly, Chandler Stephenson and Alex Chiasson also chipped in on the score sheet.
Those secondary contributions are always important, but they're especially big when you consider the fact that the Caps had to play without Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson for parts (or, in Burakovsky's case, all) of this series.
But Ovechkin didn't have to do it all, even on the power play.
The Penguins did a good job of taking away Ovechkin's opportunities from his power play office in the left faceoff circle. He didn't score a single power play goal despite 15 opportunities. Normally, that might be an issue.
However, Pittsburgh's focus on Ovechkin opened up opportunities in other areas -- most notably T.J. Oshie in the slot and John Carlson at the top of the zone. Oshie had a goal and Carlson had two.
That three-headed monster of Ovechkin-Oshie-Carlsson might have a chance to do a lot of damage against a poor Lightning penalty kill next round.
Sloppy play and giveaways
The Penguins were quite sloppy and inconsistent in their first-round series with the Flyers, and those issues carried over into the second round against Washington.
Poor puck management. Lapses in coverage. Bad changes. Ugly giveaways.
The Capitals are a good team with a number of weapons that can take advantage of opportunities like that, and the Penguins gifted them far too many. Washington burned them for it on more than a few occasions.
It's difficult to win when you insist on giving your opponent free chances like these.
And a few of their breakdowns came at very inopportune times. This bad turnover by Olli Maatta led to Washington's game-winner late in Game 3. (You can argue that Maatta was tripped at the blue line, but that's still an atrocious giveaway.)
Then, in a pivotal Game 5, the Penguins had an extra skater on the ice as they looked to tie the game, and they allowed this to happen.
The Penguins just made too many mistakes in this series and they didn't look like the same teams that had won back-to-back Stanley Cups. That sort of sloppy play is unforgivable in the playoffs, especially when most of your team isn't pulling its weight offensively.
We're living in some sort of bizarro simulation
If it's not weird enough that the Capitals are playing in the third round and went through the Penguins to get there, consider the way in which it happened.
The Penguins were done in by a lack of production behind its superstar, late blunders, and shaky goaltending. The Capitals were able to dig deep, show resilience in the face of adversity (including an injury to one of their top centers late in the series), and come away with a couple of dramatic, demoralizing wins.
Sound familiar at all?
It's like the usual story of the Penguins-Caps was completely flipped on its head, and the roles were reversed. Bizarro-world stuff.
Who knows whether or not the demons are finally erased and this is actually, finally the Capitals' year. They've got a juggernaut ahead of them in the Tampa Bay Lightning, and it certainly wont be easy to get through them.
But, for once, the Capitals clearly showed that they were better than the Penguins and they managed to close on a series win that actually belonged to them. As a result, the Caps are in the conference final and Pittsburgh has been eliminated from the playoffs for the first time in three years.
What a time to be alive.
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