If the Penguins showed this much pushback against the New York Islanders, maybe they’d still be playing.
Locker cleanout day got a little testy at times Thursday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. The 2019 Penguins team was packing up for the last time in the wake of their four-game sweep at the hands of the Islanders in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Defenseman Kris Letang didn’t like a suggestion that he needed to take fewer offensive chances. General manager Jim Rutherford got snippy when asked if his team needed to get faster before next season.
By comparison, my exchange with winger Phil Kessel was borderline jovial.
But Kessel still got his point across. I asked him what was missing — well, aside from pucks actually getting by the opposing goalie on occasion — from this year’s team as opposed to the two Penguins clubs that won Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.
“You think this is easy to win?” Kessel asked with a grin.
OK. Half a grin.
“Every team is good,” Kessel continued. “There are a lot of great players. It’s not as easy as the outside world projects to win games.”
Kessel came back to that point a few times during a 3 minute, 15 second exchange with reporters. That’s a veritable State of the Union by Kessel’s standards. One in which he was engaged, conversational and reflective.
Those words aren’t often used to describe the average interaction between Kessel and the media. I followed up by asking Kessel whether the Penguins could rediscover their magic touch from the Cup-winning seasons.
“Who is to say it can’t?” Kessel responded. “The year before, we lost in the second round and Washington won (the Stanley Cup). The two previous years, we won the Cup. There is always a chance to win, and I’m sure the team will improve. And we’ll see what happens over the summer.”
The point about Washington last season is fair one. After winning nine straight playoff series, the Penguins lost in overtime of Game 6 to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
But others in the locker room had a hard time compartmentalizing this defeat in that same manner.
“It was definitely different,” winger Bryan Rust said. “This year was a little bit more self-inflicted than last year. I definitely think we could’ve done better and we had more. I definitely think we shot ourselves in the foot in certain situations.”
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby summed up the reasons for that result.
“It was frustrating because we knew what to expect and they were successful at doing what we knew they were going to do,” Crosby said.
So the question for coach Mike Sullivan had to be, “Why?” If the diagnosis was obvious, why couldn’t the Penguins fix their own symptoms?
“To win in the playoffs, you can’t be a high-risk team,” Sullivan said. “You have to have a certain discipline to your game on both sides of the puck. It’s not always about scoring goals.”
And Sullivan insisted that pressing to score, when it was a struggle to do so against the Islanders, made matters worse.
“There was a lot of talk about the fact that we didn’t score,” Sullivan continued. “When I look at the way the series played out, it wasn’t so much that we didn’t score as it was about the opportunities we gave our opponent were of high quality. And we didn’t force them to work for it.”
Kessel and Crosby are certainly two of those players who look to score goals. They make high-risk plays. So do Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Jake Guentzel.
Are they all going to be traded? Of course not. Especially not Crosby, who often does a lot of things to prevent goals, too. But even he was a minus-4 in that Islanders series.
Should some be traded? Probably.
Although, Rutherford said Tuesday he wants the emotion of a season-ending sweep to dissipate before he makes any rash decisions.
In the end, expect most of those players to be back.
Rumors cropped up about Kessel being moved last offseason, though. Maybe they didn’t manifest into much more than that because emotions calmed for Rutherford and Sullivan in the summer of 2018, too.
However, when Kessel dragged his sticks out of the locker room Thursday, it had the look of maybe being something more permanent. As if he may be one of the players moved, so the team could start evolving into a more structured, less freewheeling unit.
If Kessel is back with the rest of the core Penguins, they’ll act like they are going to practice what they preach.
Maybe this time they’ll actually listen to themselves instead of arguing when people point out what the team knows to be true.