PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins waited a few painful minutes on the PPG Paints Arena ice after their season had come to a stunning end Monday night. They couldn’t go anywhere and hide. Most bent over on their knees as the Washington Capitals mobbed each other on the other end, celebrating their 2-1 win in overtime to clinch their first trip to the Eastern Conference finals since 1998 and deny the Penguins a shot at becoming the first franchise to win three straight Stanley Cup titles in nearly four decades.
The suddenness of losing in the postseason is especially brutal when it crumbles a potential dynasty. The Penguins will be able to dote on their accomplishments over the past two years — which aside from the two championships included two series wins over the Capitals in the second round to extend the postseason misery for their rivals — but they could do nothing but watch as most of their fans gave them a premature ovation Monday night. Large swaths of the crowd turned their backs on the group and headed for the exits, perhaps to beat traffic, or perhaps in bitter disappointment that their Penguins couldn’t again deliver what seemed to become a foregone conclusion over the past two years.
“We haven’t had this feeling for a little bit,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said.
Game 6 was a reminder of just how difficult a feat Pittsburgh had accomplished in winning back-to-back Stanley Cups and priming itself for a potential third in a row — but it also underscored how these Penguins fell short.
Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan was quick to give these resilient Capitals their due, but there was a litany of issues for his team from the onset in this series. It relied too heavily on its top line — Crosby had been on the ice for all 10 of his team’s goals to begin the series — and it didn’t receive enough secondary scoring. The Penguins didn’t have Evgeni Malkin or Carl Hagelin earlier in the series because of injury; both returned but were up and down, while prolific scoring forward Phil Kessel also struggled throughout the series.
Goaltender Matt Murray, who had been a centerpiece in the team’s championship runs, had struggled this postseason, especially on his glove side. Slow starts had crippled the Penguins earlier in the series, and it was fair to wonder if fatigue had settled in after the team entered its 61st playoff game in three seasons Monday night.
“I think this group knows how hard it is to win in the playoffs,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to have to digest it.”
This performance in a pivotal Game 6 reflected most, if not all, of those issues, and came against Washington’s shorthanded lineup that was missing suspended forward Tom Wilson and injured center Nicklas Backstrom. The Penguins looked discombobulated to start, which sent PPG Paints Arena into a bizarre silence given the stakes, and Murray gave up a cheap goal to Alex Chiasson in the second period.
The building awoke from its uneasy slumber midway through the second period, when defenseman Kris Letang — who had made a crucial defensive error late in Game 5 that led to the game-tying goal — scored on a slap-shot to tie the game. By the end of the second period, even as defenseman Justin Schultz missed a prime scoring chance on a cross at the net, the Penguins had seized the momentum and won their crowd back. But Pittsburgh wasn’t able to pull it all together. Crosby had been credited for his presence on all of the scoring production through the first four games of the series, but he was also on the ice and couldn’t handle the puck on a pass across center ice just over five minutes into overtime. That led to a turnover and an opportunity the other way, which had become a trend throughout the series. It was Evgeny Kuznetsov who beat Murray to exorcise Washington’s second-round demons.
“Just empty, I guess, would be a good word,” Murray said.
Most of the Penguins stayed in their pads and sat at their lockers after shaking hands with the Capitals. Some of the players had never experienced the playoffs without winning it all. Others struggled to find words. Forward Bryan Rust was choked up as he talked to reporters. Center Dominik Simon looked down and spit, perhaps trying to get rid of the foul taste in his mouth. Murray sat at his locker alone, wiping his stone-cold face with a towel.
And Crosby finally entered the room, walking past a small mural commemorating each of the franchise’s Stanley Cups and the years they were won. There wouldn’t be a third consecutive one added for 2018. Next to those graphics was also a definition for the word accountability, which Crosby seemed intent on taking after his team was denied a chance to do what so few teams have done.
“It definitely stings,” Crosby said. “You understand how difficult it is, and what a fine line it is between winning and losing.”