Penguins and Bruins shake hands
After three straight early exits from the Stanley Cup playoffs, the 2013 Pittsburgh Penguins entered this year's playoffs looking to erase the disappointments of the past and bring home the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup.
Instead, they bowed out against the Boston Bruins in disappointing fashion. After scoring just two goals in four games, the Pens were swept for the first time since 1972.
With seven players set to become unrestricted free agents, three more restricted free agents and the reduction in the salary cap, it's safe to assume that the team that takes the ice this fall will not be the same one that left the ice in Boston.
While it's too soon to speculate on what the Pens will look like next season, it's not too early to review what we learned from another disappointing playoff exit. Here are the five biggest things the Penguins proved during their playoff run.
Tomas Vokoun makes save against the Bruins
After watching goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and the Penguins surrender 30 goals in a first-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers last year, Penguins general manager Ray Shero decided that something had to be done.
After three straight years of playoff disappointment, the Pens needed a backup plan to Fleury, so Shero acquired Tomas Vokoun for a seventh-round pick from the Washington Capitals. While Shero's acquisitions of Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow and Douglas Murray grabbed the most headlines, it turns out that his trade for Vokoun before the season began has had the biggest impact.
Despite four straight losses to the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final, Vokoun's steady play vindicated Shero's decision to acquire him and head coach Dan Bylsma's decision to make him the starting goaltender when Fleury stumbled in the Pens' first-round series against the Islanders.
While it remains to be seen whether Shero decides to trade Fleury and make Vokoun the starting goaltender for next season, Vokoun's steady play has proven that steady, if unspectacular, goaltending can take a team further then spectacular but erratic goaltending can.
Penguins rally around Tomas Vokoun
If the 2013 Penguins proved anything, it's that regular-season success means nothing in the playoffs.
Given that the Penguins posted a 21-3 during the regular season against teams that advanced to the playoffs, most Pens fans probably didn't anticipate the first-round struggles or the third-round collapse that followed.
The Pens had reason to be optimistic against the New York Islanders in the first round, having posted a 4-1 record against them during the regular season. After four games, however, it was obvious that the Islanders were a different team in the playoffs. They tied the series at two games apiece and drove goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to the bench.
While the Pens were able take control of the series and close out the Islanders in six games, it would not be the end of the Pens' struggles.
After advancing past the Ottawa Senators, the Pens faced the Boston Bruins, a team that they had posted a 3-0 record against during the regular season, in the Eastern Conference Final. As with the Islanders, their regular-season success didn't carry over the playoffs.
The Bruins changed their game plan and chose to employ a neutral zone trap instead of the aggressive, forechecking style they had shown during the regular season. Either unwilling or unable to adapt their style, the Pens bowed out in four games after managing just two goals.
No team has won the Stanley Cup after leading the league in goals since the 1992 Penguins. While many believed that the 2013 Penguins would end that 21-year streak, the streak continues and stands as a warning to those who make predictions on the basis of regular-season success.
Marc-Andre Fleury surrenders goal agains the Bruins
Before the playoffs began, the biggest question facing the Penguins was whether or not Marc-Andre Fleury would be able to put his recent playoff struggles behind him and prove to himself and his teammates that he was capable of leading them to another Stanley Cup.
Unfortunately, Fleury's uneven play through the first four games of the Islanders series answered that question, and the answer was no.
After being replaced by Tomas Vokoun in Game 5 of the first round, Fleury would watch the next eight games from the bench. He did not see the ice again until the end of the first period of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
After surrendering three goals to Bruins in a 6-1 loss in what might be his final appearance with the Pens, Fleury returned to the bench for the final two games of the series.
To be clear, Marc-Andre Fleury is not a bad goaltender. He is a very good goaltender who has had some very bad playoff performances in recent years, which have led to a loss of confidence on his part and on the part of his teammates and coaches.
While he is only 28 and has a Stanley Cup on his resume, he also has two years remaining on his current contract and a $5 million annual salary-cap hit.
Simply put, Marc-Andre Fleury may be too expensive for the Pens to keep, and a trade seems like the logical solution.
Jarome Iginla drives to the net
As a team blessed with MVP-caliber talent, the Penguins and their fans have become accustomed to seeing highlight goals scored by great players.
While highlight goals may be commonplace during the regular season, history has shown that they are few and far between once the playoffs begin, especially when facing a team as disciplined and defensively sound as the Boston Bruins.
Whether the Pens were unwilling or unable to create traffic in front of the net and force turnovers in the offensive zone to create scoring chances is open for debate. What is not debatable is that the Pens were not able to get the puck to the front of the net with any consistency, and they suffered the biggest offensive collapse in recent playoff history as a result.
Entering the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pens were averaging 4.27 goals per game, the highest rate in more than 20 years. In four games against the Bruins, they averaged a mind-boggling 0.5 goals per game.
The Pens' offensive collapse against the Bruins should stand as a warning that, no matter how talented a team maybe, it takes deflections, rebounds, bad bounces and ugly goals to win a Stanley Cup.
Dan Bylsma discusses strategy during time out
Author Rita Mae Brown once wrote, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results."
While it might seem a bit extreme to suggest that the Penguins' game plan against the Bruins was insane, given the lack of adjustments they showed, it would be proper application of the term.
Facing a Bruins squad that was intent on taking away the middle of the ice and eliminating the stretch passes through the neutral zone, the Pens looked and sounded like a team that truly believed that their system and talent would eventually win out in the series.
Instead of shuffling his lines, Pens head coach Dan Bylsma stuck with essentially the same combinations both at even strength and on the power play, apparently believing that the Pens' regular-season approach would simply carry over into the playoffs. It didn'tm and the result was an embarrassing output of just two goals scored in a four-game sweep.
Instead of simply trying to force the play through center ice, which often resulted in turnovers and scoring chances for the Bruins, the Pens would have been better served to follow the example of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In their first-round matchup against the Bruins, the Maple Leafs used their speed to carry the puck into the zone along the boards or chipped the puck into the Bruins' zone and pressured the Bruins' defensemen into turnovers.
Instead, the Pens continued to force plays through the neutral zone and shoot from the perimeter rather than generating pressure deep in the Bruins' zone and creating traffic in front of the net to create scoring chances.
It is possible that their regular-season success, which included a 15-game winning streak, created the impression in the minds of the Pens players and coaches alike that they didn't need to make adjustments. But it took just four games against the Bruins to destroy that myth and leave the Pens with nothing but a long summer full of what ifs.