After reaching the final for two years in a row, the Penguins were ousted by the Habs 5-2 in Game 7 of their second round matchup. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
Now that the Montreal Canadiens have dispatched the defending Stanley Cup champions, I am even more convinced the credit belongs to Montreal this post-season. Jaroslav Halak has been out-of-this-world great in net (Game 1 of the East final notwithstanding), Hal Gill and Josh Gorges have formed an incredibly effective shutdown pair on the blueline and Mike Cammalleri is challenging Halak goal for save for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Rather than expressing ongoing surprise that two of the best teams in the East are golfing, it is time to praise the bleu, blanc et rouge.
Having said that, have we ever witnessed a more seemingly disinterested group than the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7? Watching that effort from the Pens made me think their house and apartment leases were scheduled to expire at the end of May or that the siren song of the World Championship was too strong for some to ignore. Whatever the motivation, it certainly appeared the Pens had little.
Sergei Gonchar was jaw-dropping bad in Game 7. To call his performance uninspired is a gross understatement. Was the pending unrestricted free agent suffering from an injury and unable to perform, or was it something else that affected his play? As a GM considering whether to re-sign or sign him, I want to know what produced that performance before tendering big money.
Of course, Gonchar had plenty of help. Kris Letang finished the post-season minus-5 (second worst on the team) and accounted for a majority of the team’s giveaways against Montreal. Marc-Andre Fleury was not at his best in Game 7 and was spotty at times throughout the playoffs; however, with Gonchar playing the part of traffic cone and Letang gift-wrapping turnovers at his own blueline, the Pens goalie did not receive much support.
Evgeni Malkin scored only one goal and had no goals at even strength in the Montreal series. Sidney Crosby managed only one goal in the series and it came in Game 6 when Gill’s monstrous mass of arms and legs was out of the lineup.
Trade deadline acquisition Alexei Ponikarovsky scored one goal in 11 playoff games and finished even for the two rounds. Slated to become an unrestricted free agent, it is hard to imagine GM Ray Shero believing ‘Poni’ is part of the long-term solution in Pittsburgh. Ruslan Fedotenko, the 2004 Stanley Cup hero, who played a key role in Pittsburgh’s march to the Cup last spring as well (14 points in 24 games), appeared in only six of the team’s 13 playoff games this year and finished with no points and a minus-3 rating. He, too, is an unrestricted free agent July 1.
What happened? While there is no shame in losing to a good hockey team, it is something altogether different to bow out without a Game 7-worthy effort. Perhaps the core of the group has played too much hockey the past three years and there was nothing left in the tank. Stanley Cup final in 2008, Cup champions in 2009 and on the verge of the Eastern Conference final again in 2010, combined with the Vancouver Winter Olympics for some of the players, may have sapped the club’s reserves and left it gasping in Game 7.
The Pens have been a great story the past few years and Sid and Co. deserve tremendous credit for reviving interest in the sport in Pittsburgh. There would not be a new arena opening next fall without their accomplishments since the lockout. Shero is one of the best managers in the NHL and Dan Bylsma is one of the league’s best young coaches.
There is a lot to be proud of with Penguins hockey. It’s just a shame the lasting memory we will have of those once-proud Pens this season is how they didn’t come close to imposing their will on a hungry, desperate Montreal team when it mattered most. What happened?
Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2009-10 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.