Penguins Playoffs Post-Mortem: Price, Defense & Lingering Questions

It had been five months since the Pittsburgh Penguins played a meaningful game of hockey, and after just one week, they have to wait another few months until they play again. The Penguins were handed a 3-1 best-of-five series loss by the Montreal Canadiens, squashing their hopes of a third Stanley Cup in five seasons.

The Penguins entered the series as the heavy favorite, only missing a top-four seeding in the Eastern Conference by three points. The Canadiens had the lowest points percentage of any of the 24 teams in the play-in format. Very few picked the underdog to win the series and advance to the playoff rounds, but they silenced their critics and proved to be too much for the Penguins.

Related: Pittsburgh Penguins’ 10 Best Defensemen in Team History

Now that the series, and season, has come to a bitter end for the Penguins, it’s time to take a game-by-game look at the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round.

Game 1

The question of who would start in net for the Penguins in the postseason was finally answered, and Matt Murray showed that he is still a capable goalie in this league. He made 32 saves and forced overtime. What didn’t help his cause, was the outstanding play of the goaltender at the other end of the ice. Carey Price returned to his prime form and put up a 39-save performance.

Matt Murray Pittsburgh Penguins
Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Canadiens were lifted to a 2-0 lead early with goals from Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki. Before the end of the second period, the Penguins answered back with a pair of goals. Sidney Crosby and Bryan Rust scored in quick succession before the goaltending battle hit another gear.

From the 12:34 mark in the second until just shy of 14 minutes into the overtime period, there were no goals, just saves. Murray made 21 saves between the Suzuki goal and Jeff Petry’s overtime winner.

Both teams earned a penalty shot and both shots were abysmal. Conor Sheary, late in the third period, failed to put the puck on net, and in overtime, Jonathan Drouin had too many stick handles and lost the puck at the net.

Game 2

The Penguins needed a bounce-back game for the second matchup, and they got it without any lineup changes. Murray again started in goal and picked up his first playoff victory since May 3, 2018, stopping 26 of 27 shots.

Jake Guentzel found Crosby to open up the scoring about four and a half minutes into the match. In between Crosby’s goal and Jason Zucker making it 2-0 late in the third period, there was a new question for the Penguins: What’s wrong with the power play?

Jason Zucker Pittsburgh Penguins
Jason Zucker, Pittsburgh Penguins (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

In Game 1, the Pens went 1-7 with a man advantage and were 0-7 in Game 2. A combined 1-14 is not what you expect from a power play that regularly ices Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang.

In the meantime, another goaltending battle took place. Murray was working on a shutout until Kotkaniemi again found the back of the net with 2:09 left in regulation. At the other end, Price continued his dominance. He made 35 saves in the loss. Combined with Game 1, he only let in three goals on 78 shots.

Game 3

Before Game 3, Jared McCann was named a healthy scratch and replaced by Sam Lafferty, who had an eye-opening phase three training camp. Lafferty made it known he was in the game laying four hits in 13 shifts.

Sam Lafferty Pittsburgh Penguins
Sam Lafferty, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With the series tied 1-1 and the number of shots the Penguins were firing, Price was bound to break. That’s what happened for the first half of Game 3; Price let in three goals before the midway point. But that was it. He didn’t let in another goal for the rest of the series.

At first, it seemed that the Penguins had figured out their power-play troubles, scoring on their first two extra-man opportunities of the game. Goals from Patric Hornqvist and Jason Zucker gave them a 2-1 lead after the first period. Teddy Blueger scored early in the second to make it 3-1 and it looked like things were going to be smooth sailing for the Penguins.

Well, that’s just not how this story goes, and it was downhill from there. The Penguins defense, more specifically Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz, looked horrible throughout the series. In three games, Johnson was on the ice for five of the Canadiens’ seven goals, while Schultz was missing simple plays and not playing his position to the best of his abilities.

That defensive pairing angered a lot of Penguins fans who were calling for a lineup change.

Game 4

A change was made for Game 4, just not the Johnson-Schultz duo. Murray was told to ride the pine so Tristan Jarry could make his playoff debut. It was a great debut, only letting in one goal on 21 shots, including some huge saves to keep the shutout alive until about four minutes remaining in the game.

A lot was made of this game falling on Crosby’s birthday. For the first time ever, the superstitious Crosby played a game on the same date as his jersey number and on which he built his career. Would he explode for multiple goals? No, Price pitched a shutout for the Canadiens and they closed the series with a 2-0 victory.

Carey Price Montreal Canadiens
Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While the game wasn’t as offensive as the previous three, both goalies put on a clinic in stopping pucks. With no score leading into the final five minutes of the game, it was a broken play that led to Artturi Lehkonen ending the stalemate. The Penguins weren’t able to recover and Weber put the nail in the coffin with an empty-netter in the dying seconds. Just like that, the Penguins’ season was over.

Reaction and Questions Going Forward

This is one of, if not the most disappointing postseason series losses in the Crosby era. As one of the heaviest favorites in the qualifying round, with a healthy lineup, and a weak opponent, the series was expected to head in the Penguins’ direction.

At a glance, the series wasn’t lost for lack of trying, Malkin, in particular, put 21 shots on net, just no goals. Crosby had three points, including two important goals. Zucker scored a pair and will be an integral part of the squad next season. Murray played well, but couldn’t make the one or two saves that might have kept the series from slipping away. Jarry played great and the last loss isn’t on him at all.

However, you can see why the series was lost. Johnson and Schultz are the easy targets, and that is well deserved; they were awful. Every game was decided by one or two goals. Without them on the ice, the Penguins could be looking forward to another playoff berth.

There is no other way to put it: the Canadiens played with more urgency to win games. They made the most of the Penguins’ mistakes and capitalized on them. This series loss will lead to more questions than answers.”

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Would starting Jarry every game have made a difference? Why were Johnson and Schultz seeing more ice time than Marcus Pettersson and John Marino? Is the “window of opportunity” closed? What does the future look like for Murray? Will the Penguins land the first-overall pick?

Another season has come and gone for the Penguins. It was a strange one that ended far too soon. Now, we just have to wait and see if things can turn around when 2020-2021 starts in a few months.