Sure, the end result might be the same. It might leave you just as disappointed. But the path you take to get there can be very different. That path should — should! — be considered when you are picking up the pieces and trying to figure out what to do next. If you are not careful you can misread a situation or a result and do something that sets your team back and significantly hurts its chances the next season or beyond.
Sometimes you just get beat because you are not good enough or did not play well enough.
Maybe you had some injuries at the wrong time or just ran into the wrong team.
Or perhaps you played well enough to give yourself a chance to win and were simply done in by the ultimate X-Factor and great equalizer come playoff time — goaltending.
That brings us to the 2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins, who for the third year in a row will not be advancing to the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after being eliminated by the New York Islanders in six games on Wednesday night.
ou will probably hear a lot of narratives in the coming days, weeks, and months as to why they lost. They were not big enough. They were not strong enough. The core players are too old. They did not have the commitment to defense that the Islanders have. They could not finish or score enough goals.
Just about all of them will be wrong.
The bottom line is this: They lost because two goalies did what goalies do come playoff time and significantly impacted the result of a series. In other words, they got goalie’d.
It will be easy to take that statement as an opportunity to pile on Tristan Jarry who had a completely miserable postseason experience. That experience was capped off by a brutal overtime gaffe in a pivotal Game 5, and a terrible Game 6 performance where he never gave his team a chance. He struggled. There is a strong argument to be made that the Penguins played well enough to win Games 1, 5, and 6 of the series, only to lose because they could not get a single save when they needed it.
[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
But it was not just about Jarry struggling.
It was also just as much about the other goalie in the series, New York’s Ilya Sorokin, taking a big step toward the stardom the Islanders have been hoping for. He was sensational, and it seems likely that the net is his moving forward. The combination of him and Barry Trotz is going to make the Islanders a headache to deal with every year for the foreseeable future.
When one team’s goalie struggles, and the other team’s goalie plays at an exceptional level, there is not much else that is going to happen in a series that is going to change the result.
When you look at the numbers in this series the Penguins had a significant edge in most categories, including shot attempts, shots on goal, scoring chances, expected goals, and high-danger chances. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said on Wednesday that outside of one game where they would have liked a better effort (almost certainly Game 4) they really liked their game every night in the series. And he is right to think that way, because there was nothing wrong with the way they played. They just didn’t get the result.
Now it is going to be up to the new management team of general manager Ron Hextall and president of hockey operations Brian Burke to figure out why they didn’t get the result and take the appropriate action. And that is where things are going to get interesting.
They have no loyalty to anybody in the organization. They did not win championships with any of these players or coaches. It is a fresh start and a clean slate for them to operate without emotion. Do they think this is a team that needs broken up after another early exit? Or do they see an otherwise strong team that is still a contender that simply lost a goaltending battle in a best of seven series?
[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2021 First Round schedule, TV info]
There already seems to be something brewing as Burke and Hextall seem to have a different vision for what the team should look like when compared to the head coach. Burke has repeatedly talked about getting bigger and having a team that “doesn’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” He has always wanted teams that play a certain style and have a certain build to them. That seems to run counter to the way Sullivan wants the Penguins to play, and he even made the comment after Game 6 that they didn’t lose the series because they were not big enough.
There is also the yearly talk of whether or not it is time to break up the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang.
But if you conclude, rightfully, that this series was won and lost in the goal crease, why would you want want — or need — to make that sort of seismic shift with the roster? For starters, Crosby, Malkin, and Letang are all still high level players. Maybe not as dominant as they were five years ago, but still upper tier players. They are still the foundation and players you can win with. They have at least a couple of more runs in them. Aside from the fact that you would almost certainly lose any trade you make with them, there are not many examples of teams that trade a player of that caliber and get better as a result of it. If you trade one of them, you are signaling that you are starting the rebuild. This is not a team that needs to do that just yet because, despite the results this postseason, it is still good enough to compete.
The supporting cast around Crosby, Malkin, and Letang is as good as it has been since the back-to-back Stanley Cups. They go four deep at center, they can roll four lines, and while the defense is not exceptional and has its flaws, it is still very good. Certainly good enough to compete if they just get some goaltending. If you can see that and still think you need to make sweeping changes you are not acting rationally, you are just making knee-jerk changes for the sake of changes.
This team does not need a teardown, or a shakeup, or a break up.
It needs goaltending first and foremost. It needs to navigate the expansion draft and figure out who goes to Seattle. And if an opportunity to improve presents itself, it should be explored. But beyond that? It should not be looking to dismantle things. It needs the rationality that does not always exist after a postseason loss to know why they did not win.
Goaltending. It will cover the flaws you do have, and it will make you think you have flaws that do not exist.
If the Penguins are not careful with how they approach this offseason they could find themselves being blinded by the latter, and fully closing their championship “window” before they need to do so.
# Jordan Staal’s been a beast for Hurricanes vs. Predators
Here’s something rare for Jordan Staal as his Hurricanes try to close out the Predators in Game 6 on Thursday (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN): you don’t need to dig that deep to measure his impact.
Merely glance at the simplest stats and highlights, and you’ll notice that Staal’s been a difference-maker. Maybe even the type of difference-maker he seemingly craved to be when he departed the star-studded Penguins many moons ago.
As you can see in the highlights above, Jordan Staal scored the Game 5 overtime-winner, and gave a celebration worthy of such an accomplishment.
Hard work paying off
It wasn’t just that goal, either. Staal is currently tied for second in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs with four goals.
That becomes even more impressive when you realize that all four of Jordan Staal’s goals were scored at even-strength. Only Nathan MacKinnon has matched Staal with four even-strength goals so far this postseason.
This playoff mini-run feels a longtime coming, and it also carries over momentum from a quietly strong regular season. Amusingly, a Rod Brind’Amour quote from February feels like it could apply to what Staal’s accomplished so far for the Hurricanes in the First Round vs. the Predators.
“I don’t know how else to say it. I’ve been saying it forever,” Brind’Amour said in February, via Canes Country. “These plays he’s been making, they’re the same plays he’s been making over and over for years. We’re connecting on them right now. I can’t tell you how many times I’d come back in the game and ‘How did Jordo not have three points last night?’ I’ve been saying this over and over: Right now, he’s getting his due …”
Staal scoring, but also an all-around beast for Hurricanes vs. Predators
Again, the simple stats already paint a pretty picture for Jordan Staal. He’s currently tied with Sebastian Aho for the team lead in points, with five in four games.
Not too surprisingly, Staal continues to thrive according to the “fancy stats” he often piles up.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Hurricanes have generated 20 high-danger chances for at even-strength when Staal’s been on the ice, while the Predators have only enjoyed eight. They’ve generated that higher quality, and also have the volume (42-19 in scoring chances).
It all translates to Jordan Staal being a player Brind’Amour clearly — and justifiably — trusts. Staal (2:50) and Aho (2:49) are the Hurricanes’ most frequent penalty-killing forwards, and the Predators have struggled mightily on the man advantage.
Coaches love their faceoff-winners, and Staal checks that box too, having won 61.5-percent of his draws (67-42).
(You could argue that Jordan Staal’s a lot like Brind’Amour, actually. Both are strong two-way forwards, including in the faceoff circle, who can contribute on offense. Both captained the Hurricanes. Each have been described as workout warriors, too.)
Contrast Jordan Staal’s work this season and playoffs with some recent dips, and this becomes even more impressive.
The 2019-20 Hurricanes run might have been the most difficult for Staal. In eight playoff games last year, Staal couldn’t generate a single goal or assist. While he’s averaged 21:14 time on ice for the Hurricanes vs. the Predators (almost a playoff career-high), Staal logged a mere 16:26 per night last time around.
Frankly, even a snake-bitten Staal was a nice asset for the Hurricanes. His mixture of smarts, skill, and power allow him to exert his will over opponents.
Only, lately, that’s translated to the sort of offense and outbursts that anyone can see.
While it would be foolish to expect Jordan Staal to maintain this pace (his shooting percentage is at 22.2), this scoring surge provides a nice excuse to appreciate what he always does for the Hurricanes.
HURRICANES – PREDATORS PLAYOFF SERIES SCHEDULE
Game 1: Hurricanes 5, Predators 2
Game 2: Hurricanes 3, Predators 0
Game 3: Predators 5, Hurricanes 4 (2OT)
Game 4: Predators 4, Hurricanes 3 (2OT)
Game 5: Hurricanes 3, Predators 2 (OT)
Thursday, May 27: Hurricanes at Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN) (livestream)
*Saturday, May 29: Predators at Hurricanes TBD
# Tavares surprisingly skates for Maple Leafs, still out indefinitely
No, John Tavares won’t be available fo
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