Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Penguins maximize the minimum in season finale
On paper, the Pittsburgh Penguins were playing for keeps.
On the ice, however, they forgot to keep playing.
Well, with any sense of urgency anyway.
Having already clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Penguins had only seeding at stake in the season finale against the New York Rangers on Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena. And they played like it.
Where the Penguins needed two points against Detroit to clinch, this time they needed some help from the New York Islanders to move into second place in the Metropolitan Division and from the Carolina Hurricanes to avoid slipping into fourth place. But they blew a 2-1 lead and lost 4-3 in overtime.
The Penguins got one out of two, maximizing the minimum.
1. Net decision: Penguins coach Mike Sullivan wasn’t taking any chances, so he started Matt Murray in goal instead of backup Casey DeSmith.
It’s hard to argue with the choice, given Murray’s effectiveness against the Rangers — he was 9-0, with a 1.98 goal-against average and .932 save percentage — and in the month of March to help the Penguins clinch a playoff berth for the 13th consecutive year.
But Murray had played 19 of the previous 20 games, and Smith started only one, a shutout March 14 at Buffalo.
DeSmith has played in only two games since Feb. 21 — going 37 minutes, 19 seconds in relief of Murray against St. Louis on March 16 — so it could have been beneficial for the backup to get some time in net before the postseason.
Murray has played in 44 career playoff games, including all 12 games in the first two rounds last year. But he has a history of injuries preventing him from playing in the postseason, missing four games in 2016 and 12 in ’17, and DeSmith has yet to appear in a postseason game.
Such a long layoff could be detrimental if DeSmith has to make an emergency appearance in the playoffs.
2. No rest for stars: No argument here on Sullivan’s decision to stick with his starters, especially defenseman Kris Letang and center Evgeni Malkin.
Even though both recently returned from injury, rest wasn’t the issue. Getting their rhythm and timing back was a more pressing matter, especially on the top power-play unit.
After going 2 for 22 in a nine-game stretch, the Penguins scored twice with the man advantage in the win over the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday.
But the power play hardly is solved, as it failed to score on the first two chances against the Rangers. The more power plays for Letang and Malkin, the better it will be for the Penguins in the playoffs, when goals are hard to come by.
3. No advantage: As important as winning home-ice advantage appears, with the Penguins it might be overblown.
Entering the finale, the Penguins were 23-14-3 (49 points) at home and finished 21-12-8 (50 points) on the road this season. So they are just as dangerous away from PPG Paints Arena as they are playing in it.
But it goes deeper than that.
In the playoffs last year, when the Penguins were eliminated in the second round, they were 2-4 at home and 4-2 on the road. The Cup championship years favored home ice, as they went 10-3 at home and 6-6 on the road in 2017 and 9-4 at home and 7-4 on the road in ’16.
Barring a first-round upset, the Penguins likely would have had home-ice advantage only for the first series.
4. Matching milestones: Sidney Crosby needed to score two points for 100, and Jake Guentzel needed one goal for 40, so it only made sense for the linemates to score first.
They just got it backwards at first.
On a two-on-one breakaway, Guentzel slid a pass from the left circle under the stick of defenseman Neal Pionk to Crosby on the right. Crosby buried a shot for a 1-0 lead at 6 minutes, 36 seconds of the first period.
Where Crosby scored his 99th point of the season, Guentzel still was stuck on his 39th goal for more than two periods.
That changed with 2:35 left in the third period. Crosby pulled the puck away from goalie Alexandar Georgiev and slid it across the goal line to Guentzel to tie it 3-3.
Crosby notched his sixth 100-point season and first since 2013-14, while Guentzel got his first 40-goal season in his third year.
And Guentzel became the first player not named Crosby or Malkin to lead the Penguins in goals in a full 82-game season since Ryan Malone scored 22 goals in 2003-04.
5. Imperfect ending: Following the Penguins on Saturday night meant following the out-of-town scoreboard.
The Islanders-Capitals and Hurricanes-Flyers outcomes were as pivotal to the Penguins’ playoff seeding as their own game against the Rangers.
With the Islanders cruising to a 3-0 victory over the Capitals, the Penguins needed only one point to secure third place in the division.
When regulation ended with the score tied, the Penguins had accomplished that feat. That it ended in a 4-3 overtime loss meant nothing to the Penguins’ playoff seeding.
So the tying goal allowed for a matching milestone moment for both Crosby and Guentzel, gave the Penguins 100 points and prevented them from having to play the reigning Cup champion Capitals in the first round.
Even in a loss, the Penguins did what they had to do.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .