It was a sorry scene, seeing the Pittsburgh Penguins skate off their home ice Tuesday night after being swept by the New York Islanders in this Stanley Cup playoffs first-round series.
Don’t blame the Penguins for being in a state of disbelief after being swept into a perfect storm. Only two years ago, they were celebrating back-to-back Cup championships in June. Now, after a 3-1 Game 4 loss Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena, their season has ended before Easter.
“It hurts,” said Penguins winger Jake Guentzel, whose goal 35 seconds into the first period brought the sellout crowd to a crescendo. “These fans have been here for us all year. To lose these two on home ice in front of them, we wanted to thank them for all they done but it doesn’t feel good.”
As painful as it was for the Penguins, it also was merciful.
If not for the Penguins, then it was for us. We don’t have to watch them pound their heads against a brick wall anymore, repeatedly trying the same tactics to beat an Islanders team that played better together, with more conviction, stronger defense, greater goaltending and able to capitalize on every chance.
Give the Islanders a stick tap for solving the Penguins with a strategy as simple as it was sound: Play the percentages, wait for them to make mistakes and then pounce.
Who is most to blame for the Penguins' first-round playoff sweep?
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That’s why it was only going to end this way, with the Islanders winning a close game to clinch the series. I’m convinced the Penguins and Islanders could have continued playing — for five, seven or 10 games — and they all would have ended in the same fashion. That’s how much the Islanders were in control.
If that wasn’t clear after the overtime loss in Game 1, it became more obvious after the second game at Nassau Coliseum. Nothing about home-ice advantage helped the Penguins avoid falling into the trap set by the Islanders time and time again. Not swapping Jack Johnson for Olli Maatta on defense. Not switching sticks in practice. Not taking a day off from skating. Not shuffling the lines. Not shaking up the power play.
“We knew what to expect,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “They were going to try to force us into making mistakes and capitalize. We knew they were comfortable playing low-scoring games.
“It was a combination of us not (scoring on) some of those chances — usually automatic for us — and that’s the kind of game that allows them to hang around. They get a couple odd-man rushes and bury some of those. That’s how fine the line is in the playoffs. Unfortunately, we were on the wrong side of those.”
Crosby took this loss hard. And he took it personally, after scoring his only point by assisting on Guentzel’s lone goal. Crosby knew the Penguins had their chances, whether it was his shot that ricocheted off the left post on a second-period power play or Phil Kessel’s shot that skipped off the shin of sliding Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield in the crease in the third.
“When you look at the nature of the way the games were played, it was a whole lot closer than the optics,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “Every game, for that matter, was a one-goal game. We might have given up a second goal late in the game because we were pressing but, for the most part, it was a fairly even game. It boils down to critical moments and making sure you make the right plays at the right time.”
The Islanders did, repeatedly, especially after the Penguins took a lead. The Islanders scored minutes after Erik Gudbranson’s goal in Game 2, after Garrett Wilson’s goal in Game 3 and after Guentzel’s goal in Game 4. That those three leads lasted a combined 4 minutes, 51 seconds is astounding. The Islanders responded to adversity with an answer.
The Penguins had none.
They were grasping at straws to explain it and will spend the rest of spring and into the summer wondering why.
“It’s disappointing because it seemed like that was the case the whole series,” Sullivan said. “Every time we scored, we’d get some momentum and we’d give it back shortly thereafter. It’s such a game of momentum. When you can hang on to it, it certainly helps your team.”
When you can’t, the ending is inevitable.