For the first time since 2015, the Pittsburgh Penguins failed to make it past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And, for the first time since 1972, they've been swept in that opening round, losing four straight to the New York Islanders.
So, how were the Islanders -- a team that most people didn't even expect to be here at this point in the year -- able to dispatch a team that has won the Stanley Cup in two of the past three seasons? Let's take a look at where things went wrong for Pittsburgh.
Poor play by Penguins' defense
The Penguins' defense could honestly be reasons one through five why they lost this series; that's how bad it got. We knew that defense would play a major factor in this series and we knew which way it would skew -- Pittsburgh's defense is not very good, and the Islanders were the top defensive team in terms of goals allowed this season -- but did we know the gap would be this drastic?
From the outset, the Penguins were completely a mess in their own end, both in defending and attempting to push play the other way. Just have a look at the first goal of the series:
Brian Dumoulin turns the puck over from behind his own net and nobody covers Jordan Eberle, who has his own zip code in front of the net. That sloppy play and breakdown in coverage was a sign of things to come for Pittsburgh, as it didn't really get much better the rest of the way through.
The Islanders aren't a particularly lethal team offensively, but they outscored Pittsburgh 14-6 over the course of the four games in this series. Here's a look at where the Islanders' goals came from in all situations:
On the whole, the Penguins' defense was often far too aggressive and made far too many bad decisions away from their own zone as well. Bad pinches, poor communication and ill-advised attempts for offense produced too many odd-man rushes and scoring chances for the Islanders.
Great play by Isles' defense
It's certainly not Sidney Crosby's fault that the Penguins finished as poorly as they did, and he didn't have a completely awful series, but Pittsburgh obviously relies on his contributions quite a bit. The Pens aren't going to win too many series when Crosby goes without a goal and tallies just one point, as he did in this series.
The Islanders' defensive corps did a great job sticking to their system in this series, and the Adam Pelech-Ryan Pulock was really good going up against top competition. Crosby finished with a minus-three goal differential (one for, four against) in the series and had nearly as many giveaways (9) and he did shots at five-on-five (5).
Not ideal, but he certainly wasn't the only guy kept quiet by the Islanders' stingy defense. Evgeni Malkin was the only Penguins forward who finished with more than one point at even strength.
Additionally, Robin Lehner had a very strong series in net (.956 save percentage) and was able to keep the Pens frustrated.
The Penguins were far too sloppy and careless with a lot of their possessions, forcing themselves into tough spots and giving the puck away. It came back to haunt them quite a bit as the Islanders were strong in transition and used the mistakes to create offense on the other end, especially in key moments.
In overtime of Game 1, Kris Letang had the puck on his stick and, for some reason, attempted to carry possession into the offensive zone despite being outnumbered by Islanders defenders and without much help behind him. He promptly turned the puck over while his team was executing a change, thus gifting the Islanders a rush that led to the game-winner.
Then, in Game 2 with the score tied 1-1 late in the third period, the Penguins won a defensive zone faceoff and looked ready to transition to the offensive end, but they coughed up the puck during what should have been a simple zone exit. A wide open Malkin couldn't cleanly receive a pass from Patric Hornqvist and booted the puck back to the Isles, and Jordan Eberle was able to capitalize.
These mistakes killed the Penguins early on and became a recurring theme for the Penguins.
While we're on the subject of big goals from Eberle, how about the series from that guy? He came into the playoffs with zero goals in 13 prior postseason games but quickly squashed any concerns about his ability to produce in big spots. Not only did he lead the Islanders with four goals and six points, but a number of those goals came in absolutely huge spots for New York.
His first goal was the first of the series and got the Islanders on the board just 1:40 into Game 1, injecting some additional life into an already rowdy Islanders crowd at the Nassau Coliseum. His second goal (shown in the section above) was the game-winner in the third period of Game 2.
The third came in the first period of Game 3, shortly after the Penguins had scored the opening goal to take an early lead in their own barn. The final one came in a similar spot -- a brilliant shot in Game 4 that erased an early lead for the Penguins, taking the air out of the building in Pittsburgh.
Eberle and linemate Mat Barzal (five assists) were dominant in the series. Both players were on the ice for six Islanders goals at five-on-five and weren't on the ice for a single goal against. They were the offensive studs in this series.
We can't rule out that the possibility that the Washington Capitals effectively ruined the Penguins forever after finally beating them in a playoff series last year. I mean, Crosby and the Pens are winless and a shell of their former selves after being forced to watch Alex Ovechkin raise the Cup. Makes you think.