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Penguins lose first round, goaltending, top line among culprits

Crosby, Guentzel, Rust combine to score four goals against Islanders

by Wes Crosby / Independent Correspondent

The Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the New York Islanders, losing 5-3 in Game 6 of the best-of-7 Stanley Cup First Round at Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday.

Pittsburgh was 37-16-3 in the regular season, finishing first in the MassMutual East Division. It lost three in a row after taking a 2-1 series lead with a 5-4 win in Game 3. 

The Penguins have been eliminated in an opening-round series the past three postseasons. They were swept by the Islanders in the 2019 Eastern Conference First Round and lost to the Montreal Canadiens in four games in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers last season.

Here is a look at what happened during the 2021 postseason for the Penguins and why things could be even better next season:

The Skinny

Potential unrestricted free agents: Cody Ceci, D; Yannick Weber, D; Zach Trotman, D; Colton Sceviour, F; Frederick Gaudreau, F; Evan Rodrigues, F; Mark Jankowski, F

Potential restricted free agents: Zach Aston-Reese, F; Teddy Blueger, F; Radim Zohorna, F

Potential 2021 NHL Draft picks: 5

What went wrong 

Goaltending: Tristan Jarry responded to allowing four goals on his glove side in a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 1 by making 37 saves in a 2-1 win in Game 2. But for the most part Jarry struggled; his .888 save percentage is last among goalies with at least three starts this postseason.

In Game 5, Jarry made his most glaring error when attempting a pass up ice. Josh Bailey intercepted it and scored the winning goal over Jarry's glove at 51 seconds of the second overtime. It didn't get better when Jarry allowed five goals on 19 shots through the first two periods of Game 6.

Little production from top line: Sidney Crosby at center with Jake Guentzel at left wing and Bryan Rust at right wing was one of the most potent lines in the NHL this season. Each scored at least 22 goals, and Crosby led the Penguins with 24.  

But they went silent against the Islanders. Crosby scored one goal, in Game 1. Guentzel's only goal was in Game 6. Rust was the most impactful with two goals. 

Few adjustments: The lines and defense pairs weren't changed the first two games. They were altered in Game 3 because second-line center Evgeni Malkin returned from an undisclosed injury. The lineup wasn't touched the rest of the way, even as the Penguins lost the last three games.

The Penguins thought they played well, which explains why the lineup was consistent. But a change or two might have created a spark. 

Reasons for optimism 

New regime: After Jim Rutherford resigned as general manager Jan. 27, Ron Hextall was hired as his replacement and Brian Burke was named president of hockey operations Feb. 9. The Penguins made an impact before the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline by acquiring forward Jeff Carter in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings on April 12. A new approach might be what is needed with their core of Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang entering the latter stages of their NHL careers.

Center depth: Unless there is an unexpected move, the Penguins should have Crosby, Malkin and Carter as their top three centers next season. Crosby and Malkin, when healthy, haven't lost much of a step. And Carter showed he still has quite a bit left at age 36, scoring 13 goals in 20 games for Pittsburgh between the regular season and playoffs. 

Complimentary pieces: The Penguins also have a group of capable wings for their centers in addition to Guentzel and Rust. Kasperi Kapanen scored 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) in 40 games, mostly at second-line right wing during his first season with the Penguins. Kapanen's chemistry with Malkin could have an even greater impact in their second season together. 

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