By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins’ season came to a stunning end on Tuesday. That much is certain.
What happens next is anybody’s guess.
Brad Richards’ series-clinching power-play goal in the second period could alter the shape of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ franchise as the New York Rangers completed a historic comeback from the brink, eliminating Pittsburgh and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals with a 2-1 victory in Game 7 of their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series Tuesday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“Our ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup,” Penguins’ head coach Dan Bylsma said. “I haven’t contemplated the price it’s going to be or what that’s going to be or anything towards the future yet.”
The Rangers won three straight, rallying from a 3-1 series deficit for the first time in franchise history, while defeating Pittsburgh for the first time ever in a playoff series. They will meet Boston or Montreal in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“We battled so hard as a team the last three games,” goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. “After losing that fourth game, it was tough. When you face a challenge like that, it’s about how you answer and we did it the right way.”
Brian Boyle got the Rangers on the board with his second of the playoffs in a series where the team that scored first won every game. Richards, unblemished with a 7-0 record in winner-take-all games since 2004, ended it on the power play – his fourth goal of the playoffs – just minutes after Pittsburgh tied the game.
That was more than enough for Lundqvsit, who delivered a sterling effort, stopping 35 shots and setting a new league record, winning his fifth straight Game 7. Lundqvist, 5-1 for his career in Game 7, is 10-2 when the Rangers face elimination.
The Penguins’ best chance to tie it came during a flurry in the final five minutes where Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang and Paul Martin all had shots at Lundqvist, who stopped them all, despite playing part of the sequence without his stick.
It was that kind of night.
“I felt we did everything we needed to do tonight except put another one past (Lundqvist),” Penguins’ defenseman Rob Scuderi said.
Jussi Jokinen scored his seventh of the playoffs for Pittsburgh, which failed again on home ice in Game 7.
Pittsburgh, 7-7 all-time, is 2-7 at home during Game 7 in franchise history, including losses against Montreal in 2010 and Tampa Bay three years ago. Pittsburgh’s last home Game 7 win came during the 1995 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Washington Capitals.
The Penguins’ latest Game 7 meltdown is likely to shake-up the long-term future of one of the NHL’s stable franchises.
Captain Sidney Crosby scored just one goal in 13 playoff games and the Penguins’ power play, which tied for the league’s best in the regular season, converted just one of its final 20 chances.
“Obviously, I would like to score more and contribute, but it wasn’t a lack of effort,” Crosby said. “I’d love to tear it up every series, but it’s not always the case.”
Crosby ended a 13-game playoff drought in Game 3, scoring his lone goal of the post-season, but struggled throughout. He looked nothing like the league MVP finalist who won the regular season scoring title, finishing well-below his career playoff points-per-game average. A frustrated Crosby found himself sparring with Rangers through the latter part of the series and Lundqvist dumped his water bottle on the Penguins’ captain at one point in Game 6.
Crosby spoke with Penguins’ co-owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux after the Penguins’ Game 6 loss, but it didn’t lead to a win as he finished with two shots in 22:02 of ice time.
“It’s tough losing as it is, but when you’re unable to contribute as much as you’d like, it’s even tougher,” Crosby said.
Malkin, the Penguins’ other superstar forward, didn’t fare much better, though he led the team in scoring with six goals and 14 points. He had just one goal and two points in the Penguins’ final three games – all losses.
The loss could also mean the end for Bylsma, who led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2009 and the conference finals last season. Pittsburgh clinched just one series on home ice under Bylsma. The fallout could extend beyond for a team that has annual championship aspirations, yet fell short of the Stanley Cup Finals for the fifth straight season since winning it all in 2009.
“I think there are always questions,” Crosby said. “When expectations are high and you don’t win that’s normal. I’m sure there will be a lot of questions.”
The teams never met in a deciding Game 7 showdown prior to Tuesday.
The Rangers are used to the Game 7 spotlight, playing the decisive game for the fifth time in seven series since 2012, including one this season in their first-round set against Philadelphia. They won their third straight Game 7 and are 8-1 in their past nine. New York improved to 8-5 in Game 7 and bucked history again, improving to 2-5 on the road. The Rangers are 5-1 since 2009, scoring first in all their wins.
The Penguins, playing their fifth Game 7 in six seasons, never wanted the series to get that far.
Pittsburgh raced to a 3-1 series lead after four games against the weary Rangers – playing a brutal five-game, seven-day schedule, but New York regrouped, rallying around veteran Martin St. Louis – a February trade acquisition from Tampa Bay – after the unexpected passing of his mother.
The Rangers waxed Pittsburgh in Game 5 and St. Louis, days removed from the death of his mother, scored the first of three goals in Game 6, helping New York force Tuesday’s Game 7.
“I think we were able to rally emotionally around Marty and we sort of built off our best game of the series and we didn’t look back from there,” Rangers’ coach Alain Vigneault said.
Boyle’s goal helped the Rangers draw first blood just 5:25 into the game. New York took advantage of a Penguins’ turnover at the opposite blue line and Boyle ended the 4-on-2, slipping a shot between Marc-Andre Fleury’s five hole.
Jokinen’s rebound goal tied it for the Penguins, but the Rangers regained the lead for good on Richards’ power play goal less than four minutes later.
The initial shot deflected behind the net, but a slick backhand from St. Louis, sent the puck to Richards in the slot where he coolly put the Rangers in front.
The Rangers’ power play got the final say after enduring a dismal 0-for-36 slide, spanning the series against Philadelphia and early portions against the Penguins.
They figured it out with three goals in the final three games of the series, ultimately putting an end to the Penguins’ season and maybe more.
“When you go up 3-1, they played their best game in Game 5, and not being able to come up with the knockout punch is probably the biggest turning point in the series,” Bylsma said. “I think you just want to punch your ticket to the conference finals. It’s a hard process, a hard thing to move on and win. If we win this game, we’re moving on, but we didn’t.”