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Penguins’ Lament: ‘To an Extent We Beat Ourselves’

The answer to a self-inflicted postseason sweep must begin with getting the players and their coach back on the same page regarding what’s required for survival in the playoffs.

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It took the Penguins six months to get it together.

It took four games for them to fall completely apart.

The first-round sweep they absorbed at the hands of the New York Islanders in what became Round One-And-Done of the Stanley Cup Playoffs was as revealing as it was thorough.

It was also a stunner, given how far the Penguins had managed to fall.

And how fast.

For proper context, rewind back to March 25. The Pens beat the Rangers that night, 5-2, which concluded a daunting, four-game road trip at 3-0-1 and improved the Pens’ record to 14-4-4 in their last 18 games.

“I really like how our team is trending,” head coach Mike Sullivan announced that night at Madison Square Garden. “I think we’re playing hard. I think we’re playing together.”

Next came the kicker: “I think we’re becoming a team.”

The majority of the regular season up until March had offered no such evidence. The Pens had initially established a trend of playing up or down to the level of competition, an understandable characteristic if not an admirable one for a team that had enjoyed an abundance of success the past three seasons. They’d also made a few tweaks to the roster when necessary and dealt with their share of injuries along the way.

Standard, given the circumstances, but hardly the stuff that inspires confidence.

Then March came and the Pens began playing a different game. Sullivan elaborated upon his return from the World’s Most Famous Arena and sung his team’s praises. Among the chords he struck were the time the Penguins had been spending in the offensive zone, their ability to generate transition and odd-man rush opportunities that resulted form quick and efficient stickwork in the neutral zone and his team’s buy in to playing collective defense through attention to detail.

They’d rediscovered the discipline and diligence they’d need in the postseason.

“It’s just essential to win,” Sullivan emphasized then. “It’s hard to win in this league if you don’t have the ability to play away from the puck. And the only way you can be hard to play against is you gotta play together as a group.”

The Pens suddenly appeared to be back on board with all of the above.

Then the puck dropped in Game 1 against the Islanders.

The four games that followed were characterized by an avalanche of odd-man rushes against facilitated by the Pens’ mismanagement of the puck. There wasn’t much offense generated by the defense because the Pens infrequently played the latter. And the idea of getting the puck deep and working below the goal line when the Islanders packed their defensive end was too often discarded in favor of trying to skate or pass through a crowd, a tactic that mostly produced turnovers.

The compete level and the commitment investment weren’t what they needed to be.

And that was a deal-breaker in the postseason.

“There’s a bunch of things that were different between the Islanders and the Penguins and the reason the Islanders won four straight,” General Manager Jim Rutherford acknowledged on Thursday. “They played the right way, they were eager to win and they were determined.

“And the Penguins weren’t.”

Added Sullivan: “To a certain extent we beat ourselves with our lack of commitment to play the game the right way.”

Pens players had admitted pretty much the same thing –– Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel to name three –– on Tuesday night after the Islanders had completed their sweep.

The Islanders “defended way harder” (Letang).

The Islanders played “a little it hungry” (Malkin).

The Islanders “just waited for us to be careless a little bit” (Guentzel).

And, the Islanders “wanted it more than us” (Letang again).

There can be no more glaring indictment of the 2018-19 Pens.

Sullivan’s message didn’t change.

But the players’ reception of it or willingness to respond to it was completely lost in translation.

“I don’t have an answer for it,” Sullivan had admitted in the immediate aftermath of Game 4.

Job One this offseason will be finding one.

That sudden disconnect between Sullivan and the group he recently transformed from mentally fragile into a two-time champion is what emphatically sealed the Penguins’ playoff fate.

And it’s a bigger issue moving forward than their relative team speed, where Dominik Simon should play, if Jack Johnson or Olli Maatta should play, the disappearance of Patric Hornqvist, the regression of Sidney Crosby and Guentzel as goal-scorers, Phil Kessel and the power going MIA, the decline of Malkin and, last but certainly not least, Letang’s treating the Stanley Cup playoffs like a Beer League skate.

“Everybody’s gotta take a step back and soul search,” was part of Sullivan’s initial response. “What do we learn from it? What are the takeaways and how do we get better?

“What those answers are, it’s hard for me to say right now.”

It may be another six months in the discovery.

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