PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins were up 3-1 in their Eastern Conference Second Round series against the New York Rangers. Less than a week later, the Penguins are heading home after another early exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The upcoming offseason could be eventful for Pittsburgh after being ousted by a lower-seeded team for the fifth consecutive postseason since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. But before looking ahead to the changing atmosphere surrounding the Penguins franchise, their first series loss against the Rangers will be analyzed.
After a 3-2 overtime loss in Game 1, Pittsburgh rattled off three convincing wins by a combined score of 9-2. They seemed poised to enter the Eastern Conference Final playing their best brand of hockey in several months. That quickly changed and they lost the next three games, scoring one goal in each.
Here are five reasons the Penguins failed to reach a second consecutive Eastern Conference Final:
1. Stars didn't shine
Much of the blame for the Penguins' offensive inefficiency will be placed on captain Sidney Crosby, and rightfully so. Crosby, the NHL scoring champion, finished the series with three points and one goal. He was held pointless in five of the seven games and did not have the same presence off the puck that was showcased in Pittsburgh's Eastern Conference First Round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. But Crosby isn't the lone scapegoat. Forwards Chris Kunitz and James Neal scored a combined 62 goals during the regular season but were silent in the playoffs; each went without a goal in the final three games of the series.
2. Power shut off
Pittsburgh relied heavily on its special teams throughout the regular season. Against New York, the Penguins' power play was nonexistent, which forced them to generate the bulk of their chances 5-on-5. After successfully shutting down the Rangers' power play through four games, Pittsburgh finished Game 5 with one less power-play goal than New York in the series. The Penguins made several adjustments while on the man advantage, introducing a four-forward look with Neal playing alongside Crosby, Kunitz, forward Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Matt Niskanen, but it never clicked. The Penguins' once high-octane power play scored one goal during the series and did not have a chance to redeem itself in Game 7, when Pittsburgh's lone opportunity was cut short after 50 seconds by a holding call on Neal.
3. No advantage on home ice
The Penguins preached how hard they had worked to earn home-ice advantage, but that hard work was in vain during the second round. Pittsburgh lost three of its four home games in the series and scored more than two goals once in those contests. The Penguins were held to one goal in Games 5 and 7 despite playing in front of lively crowds. They treated the lead-up to Game 7 as if it was a road game, but Pittsburgh's struggles in home Game 7s continued. They have lost seven of their nine Game 7s at home, their last win coming May 18, 1995 against the Washington Capitals.
4. Fleury gets few favors
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was one of Pittsburgh's best players for a second consecutive series. His performance was the most prominent question facing the Penguins entering the playoffs and he delivered. But late in the second round, Fleury was often left helpless against clear shots he had little chance of stopping. The Penguins defense failed to clear the area around the crease in Games 5 and 6, leading to losses by the combined score of 8-2. Fleury rose to the occasion in Game 7 by making 18 saves, but his offense let him down and the Penguins lost 2-1.
5. Failure to finish
After earning a 3-1 series lead, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said multiple times Pittsburgh could not provide the Rangers with "any breath, any life." That message did not seem to get across in the locker room and the Penguins lost 5-1 in Game 5 at Consol Energy Center. Bylsma said the Penguins would have to match New York's desperation in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden, but Pittsburgh had another lackluster effort in a 3-1 loss. Heading into Game 7, Bylsma said one of his players would have to seize the moment and be willing to become heroic. Nobody took on that role and Pittsburgh lost its third consecutive game. After battling back from adversity throughout the first round, the Penguins were not able to respond in the same way against New York.