What now? Penguins dealing with another early playoff exit

NHL Hockey

PITTSBURGH (AP)The Pittsburgh Penguins felt so confident in Tristan Jarry’s ascendancy during the offseason they traded two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Matt Murray and awarded Jarry with a new contract.

So much for that.

The steady play that made Jarry an All-Star in 2019-20 and helped guide the Penguins to their first division title in seven years this spring evaporated during a first-round playoff loss to the New York Islanders. He surrendered 21 goals in six games, including three in a 3-minute span in Game 6 that sent Pittsburgh tumbling out of the postseason after one round for the third straight year.

Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan didn’t place blame squarely on the shoulders of his 26-year-old goaltender, stressing ”it’s not any one person’s fault. Everybody is doing their best to be part of the solution.”

Maybe, but after failing his first true playoff test so completely, it’s fair to wonder whether Jarry can be part of that solution. Jarry said he would press forward and focus on improving after his baffling clearing attempt early in the second overtime of Game 5 leddirectly to Josh Bailey’s game-winner.

His response, however, was to let three one-goal leads slip away with Pittsburgh’s season on the line as the raucous Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum chanted his name. Sullivan stuck with Jarry for the entire 60 minutes, perhaps because he didn’t have much choice with backup Casey DeSmith unavailable due to injury.

Unlike the aftermaths of a sweep at the hands of the Islanders in 2019 and a stunningly lifeless performance in a loss to Montreal in the bubble last summer – both of which led to significant roster upheaval – where the Penguins go from here is murky.

They had the look of a Stanley Cup contender while sprinting to the East Division title and dominated for long stretches during the series. Pittsburgh outshot New York handily (241-197) and leading in five of the six games, including three of the four losses.

”You can look at every year and analyze it differently,” captain Sidney Crosby said. ”I felt like we had a good group and we did a lot of good things. We easily could have made a run. I feel very confident about this group in saying that and the way that we were trending, the way we finished this year. But it’s a fine line in the playoffs.”

One the Penguins have found themselves on the wrong side of for a fourth straight series, something the franchise hasn’t done in four decades. For a core group that includes two future Hall of Famers in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, it’s not acceptable.

The Penguins will have two months to ponder where to go from here. There’s a chance the first offseason for new general manager Ron Hextall and president of hockey operations Brian Burke could be eventful. Defenseman Kris Letang is 34. Crosby will turn 34 in August. Malkin will be 35 in July. Letang and Malkin are both entering the final years of their respective contracts.

Yet given what happened on the ice in front of Jarry, the players themselves don’t see any reason to hit a full-scale reset.

”Up and down the lineup, it’s a team that can definitely compete for a Stanley Cup,” said forward Jeff Carter, who scored a team-high four goals against the Islanders and scored 15 times in 20 games after being acquired from Los Angeles at the trade deadline. ”The hunger is still in that room. That comes from the top guys. Those guys want to win. They want to go out, they want to go back to the top.”

Some things to keep an eye on over the next few months as Pittsburgh sifts through the rubble of another quick playoff exit.

WHAT TO DO IN NET: Jarry’s numbers overall on the season were a tick below what he put up in 2019-20. Still, he went 13-1-2 down the stretch, one of the main reasons Pittsburgh was able to slip by Washington for the division title. It’s fair to wonder, however, how he’ll respond psychologically. The Penguins could decide a change of scenery might benefit him, but there’s no telling what the market might be after the Islanders found the back of the net so easily.

The easier solution – maybe – would be to find a more experienced goaltender who could push him. DeSmith’s numbers were comparable to Jarry’s during the regular season, but his next playoff appearance will be his first.

AGENT CARTER: So much for wondering whether Carter has any life left in his 36-year-old legs. He was Pittsburgh’s best player seemingly from the moment he entered the locker room. He’s already vowed to stick around for another season and his spectacular play makes it highly unlikely the Penguins leave him exposed in the expansion draft.

STICKING WITH SULLIVAN: It’s difficult to pin Pittsburgh’s loss on Sullivan, whose arrival in December 2015 became the spark that led the Penguins to become the first team in a generation to win back-to-back Cups. Given the way the Penguins general dictated play against the Islanders, Sullivan’s system predicated on speed and skill appears to be effective.

Still, Pittsburgh is now 3-13 in its last 16 playoff games and Hextall and Burke don’t have a long-standing relationship with him. Sullivan does have three seasons remaining on his current contract, so making a move seems unlikely. That being said, the good will he generated by hanging a pair of Cup banners at PPG Paints Arena is likely gone.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHLand https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

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