The coroner is in. Wheel in the first champion to fall: the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The skinny: In hindsight, we should have all known this was a trap series. Yes, the Penguins were rolling after an inconsistent first month and seemed to find another gear when Jeff Carter returned to his old form after Pittsburgh acquiring him from Los Angeles. Then again, the Islanders were a defensively-responsible team with great goaltending and arguably the best coach in the NHL in Barry Trotz; a team basically tailor-made for the postseason.
While it was nowhere near as embarrassing as their 2019 sweep at the hands of the Islanders, the Penguins still did little as their offense was repeatedly stifled by the Islanders. They got some good bounces in their two victories, but it did little to turn the momentum in their favor. So what caused the first champion to fall so early? Let’s examine the causes for a bit…
Goaltending: The obvious reason and, in the eyes of many Pittsburgh fans, the sole reason the Penguins lost this series. While Tristan Jarry had his moments, his .888 save percentage ranks third-last among goaltenders who started at least three games this postseason. Three games, in particular, stand out to highlight how rough Jarry’s playoffs were. Game 1, Jarry let go of all four Islander goals from the glove side, indicating a massive hole for the Islanders to exploit. Game 5, Jarry single-handedly cost the Penguins the game with a risky clearing attempt that landed on the stick of Josh Bailey, who proceeded to end the game early in double overtime. Jarry would respond to that miscue by letting go of five goals on 19 shots in Game 6. Jarry was getting his first extended postseason look, and the results reflected very poorly on him.
First-line struggles: While Jarry deserves some blame, it’s hard not to look at Sidney Crosby’s performance and say he should carry some blame for the Penguins’ early exit. This was arguably Crosby’s weakest playoff series to date, mustering only one goal and one assist against the Islanders, as well as getting burned badly on a few Islanders goals. His linemates didn’t perform much better. Jake Guentzel managed the same offensive totals as Crosby while finishing with a -6. Bryan Rust did somewhat better by scoring twice, but it wasn’t enough. In a series where the stars had to perform, the Penguins fell silent in that regard.
The Islanders’ second line: Compare the struggles of the Penguins’ first line to the success of the Islanders’ second line. While no member of the Penguins’ first line managed more than three points, all three of Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson, and Josh Bailey scored three goals apiece and picked up at least six points. Keep in mind that the Islanders are typically an inconsistent offensive team, with their 2.71 goals per game mark finishing 21st in the league during the regular season. In this series, however, the Penguins saw themselves repeatedly victimized by the same line. It’s a common thread in these series where the winner sees their offensive stars outperform the losing side, and that’s exactly what happened here.
The crystal ball: If you were to look at Penguins social media after their third straight early elimination, you would be hearing cries for Tristan Jarry to be traded. Granted, the panic regarding Pittsburgh’s goaltending situation is justified, given they haven’t had consistently strong goaltending since the duo of Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury were patrolling the net. However, moving Jarry sounds like a panic move, and would be an open sign that the Penguins will overpay a goalie in free agency or on the trade market. There’s no need to change the course of this team just yet, especially with the core of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang making a full rebuild nearly impossible to pull off. An Expansion Draft trade to take a complementary piece wouldn’t be a bad idea (Jason Zucker and Marcus Pettersson immediately come to mind), but that should be as far as Pittsburgh’s salary cap casualties should go.
There is one man’s future I’m not entirely certain on, though: coach Mike Sullivan. Jim Rutherford bowed out mid-season from Pittsburgh’s GM role, and the new regime of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke might be looking at options to find their own man at the helm. Sullivan did win two Cups with the Penguins, but his lack of adjustments in recent years has likely reduced the goodwill to near-insignificance. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for the Penguins to move on from a coach after a new regime took over, as it happened in 2013 with Dan Bylsma following Ray Shero out of Pittsburgh. It would be a surprise firing, but one that wouldn’t be wholly unexpected. As far as who would replace him, might I suggest former Penguins assistant and former Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet, who might be intrigued by Hextall’s vision?