PITTSBURGH — Tell us again how a team that needed a point from an overtime loss to the Maple Leafs on the final Saturday of the NHL season just to qualify for the playoffs can eliminate the Stanley Cup champions.
Pick your poison, pick your Penguin.
The 50 cent analysis — albeit one with some merit — was that the outstanding play of Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak was responsible for it all, with a cameo to Mike Cammalleri. But if you watched the deciding 5-2 loss on Wednesday closely, Halak saw almost every shot so clearly his work was as simple as swatting flies.
Good on the Habs for executing a stifling game plan to perfection and taking max advantage of their opportunities, but this one is on the Pens.
More specifically, the key figures who drove the Penguins to the title last spring, were key components in their demise this time around.
Here’s a look at seven high-profile Penguins and their shortcomings — one for each game of the Eastern Conference semifinal.
1. Marc-Andre Fleury. He is not alone among big-name goaltenders to crap in his crease these playoffs, but Fleury’s shortcomings may have been the most spectacular. From a bad goal to start Game 7 — an inexcusable error at such a mammoth moment — to three more before the game was half over, Fleury was a flop. Wildly inconsistent, it will take some time before he can be trusted as a big-game goaltender again.
2. Evgeni Malkin. One of these days, the talented Russian must make use of those skills rather than going through the motions, which he does with annoying regularity. Malkin, who has to do more than just complement Crosby when he feels like it, didn’t have an even-strength point against the Habs.
3. Sidney Crosby. From a stupid boarding penalty 10 seconds into the game, to some sloppy giveaways in the offensive zone, Game 7 was not the Penguins’ captain’s finest hour. He was minus-2 on the night and unable to generate offence when it was needed most, particularly on the power play.
4. Sergei Gonchar. Starting to show his age, the Russian defenceman turned into an ice sculpture at the worst possible moment on Wednesday. When Montreal’s Travis Moen blew by him like he was tied to the blueline to score a short-handed, backbreaking goal, it was in stark contrast to the competitor that battled back from injury in last year’s playoffs to be a leader in the Pens’ drive to the Cup.
5. Chris Kunitz. Remember when the winger arrived at the 2009 trade deadline it was part of the turnaround that took the Penguins from outside the playoff picture to unlikely champions? Back then, he provided credible and much-needed support to Crosby. Well, Kunitz was a giveaway machine in Game 7, barfing up the puck twice to lead directly to Canadiens goals. At times he looked lost and throughout the series he performed nothing like the top six forward the Penguins (and especially Crosby) need him to be.
6. Ray Shero. A week before the playoffs began, the Penguins GM lamented the fact that the NHL salary cap has made maintaining a dynasty next to impossible. This is not Shero’s fault, but being cap-strapped forced him to let defencemen Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill go free in the off-season.
Acquiring Alexei Ponikarovsky at the trade deadline was not the key to returning to the Cup final for a third consecutive season, as any veteran Maple Leafs observer could have predicted. Worse, Gill was among the many Canadiens who made life miserable for Crosby and the other Penguins’ skill players.
7. Dan Bylsma. The Pittsburgh coach, who won the Cup as a rookie in the NHL, may well have been schooled by the Habs’ Jacques Martin. It certainly didn’t appear that Bylsma and his staff had an answer fro the stifling, trapping defence, not to mention the inability to apply pressure on Halak.