Penguins’ Epitaph: So Close and Yet So Far Away

To win the Stanley Cup Championship you have to be good, but you also have to be lucky. The Penguins weren’t enough of either this time.

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The Capitals had finally exorcised their franchise demon, but in the immediate aftermath Brooks Orpik repeatedly referenced something that hadn’t happened.

“An inch the other way and we’re going to Game 7,” Orpik acknowledged late Monday night at PPG Paints Arena.

He was talking about Penguins winger Tom Kuhnhackl blasting a shot off of a goal post less than three minutes into overtime.

Less than three minutes after that, Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov scored on a breakaway and Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals was history.

And so were the Penguins.

Did Washington’s 2-1 victory in Game 6 and the series really come down to that?

Not entirely, but there’s no doubt random chance was a factor.

It usually is in the postseason.

Ultimately, the Penguins got what they deserved. The six-game elimination that denied them a three-peat was mostly attributable to, in no particular order, Matt Murray not being as good as goaltending counterpart Braden Holtby, unforced breakdowns in structure that made Murray’s job much more difficult than it needed to be, and a lack of secondary scoring.

But Kuhnhackl’s near-miss rip off the pipe was the type of break the Capitals needed at the precise moment when such a turn of good fortune was necessary.

Washington’s T.J. Oshie had struck iron on a first-period power play, but had his shot instead found the back of the net it still wouldn’t have ended the game.

Kuhnhackl’s could have but didn’t.

Perhaps that’s why Orpik, a Cup-winning defenseman with the Penguins in 2009, was much more relieved than euphoric after finally surviving a postseason series against his former team  on his third consecutive try, and after the Caps had finally crossed what had been a bridge too far in nine of the two franchises’ 10 previous postseason meetings.

“When you get in a long series like this, it can go either way,” Orpik maintained “You definitely need some luck on your side and, obviously, we got that with the shot off the post.”

The teams that survive and advance don’t leave it up to chance.

But once it gets to overtime anything can happen.

Nick Bonino got the Penguins on the right side of an OT goal and the right side of the post-series handshake in Game 6 against the Caps in 2016.

And Sidney Crosby kept the Penguins from falling into what would have been a foreboding, two-games-to-none hole against Tampa Bay in the 2016 postseason with some quick-strike overtime magic.

Those occurrences stand as two examples, but far from the only two, of the type of close shaves that had to be navigated somehow, some way in the Penguins’ previous two runs through the playoffs.

They didn’t just steamroll their way to consecutive Stanley Cups.

In the event they’d forgotten as much, the way the extra session played out on Monday night and the way the series ended against Washington provided a painful reminder.

“You understand just how difficult it is and what a fine line it is between winning and losing,” Crosby allowed.

You have to be good, but you also have to be lucky.

The Penguins weren’t enough of either this time.
 

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section