Monday, May 23, 2016

Penguins' biggest stars nowhere to be found

May 23, 2016

The Penguins' Sidney Crosby smacks the puck after the Lightning beat the Penguins in overtime during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday, May 22, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.

Will it matter?
The turnaround orchestrated by coach Mike Sullivan. The improvements made by general manager Jim Rutherford. The MVP-form rediscovered by captain Sidney Crosby.
Prospects became regulars.
Veterans accepted different roles.
A proud (and at times arrogant) franchise that had been humbled by bottoming out only to rediscover its blue-collar roots and scoring identity in a glorious rise, the Penguins are once again where they've been too often.
Looking at elimination from the playoffs before the Stanley Cup Final. And if that happens for a seventh consecutive Pittsburgh spring, will anything that happened during a wonderful winter have mattered?
Really mattered?
It doesn't feel like it. A 4-3 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday night felt all too familiar from inside Consol Energy Center.
It didn't look good inside the Penguins dressing room afterward, either.
As reporters flocked to the stall of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, his fellow members of the Penguins' so-called Big Four (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang) were nowhere to be found.
Not for answers.
Not to protect their goalie.
Failing to show strength in a moment demonstrated their shameful lack of accountability and made it feel like a crisis.
If the Penguins lose in Game 6 at Tampa's Amalie Arena on Tuesday night, nobody — neither co-owner Mario Lemieux nor anybody who has paid hefty prices to watch his Penguins play over the past seven years — should forget that moment. In fact, it should be remembered as the moment when the three Penguins who make the most money left it up to the likes of Bryan Rust, Olli Maatta and Beau Bennett to explain another lousy playoff loss in the Crosby/Malkin/Letang era.
I know which Penguins I'll be looking at in Game 6.
As for Game 5, a lot of Penguins spent too much of it looking lost. Atop that list are Crosby and Letang.
The Penguins' top line, anchored by Crosby, couldn't have come up smaller in a bigger moment. In a series tied 2-2, Game 5 winners usually become the victors.
So, yeah, the Penguins needed better from Crosby and winger Patric Hornqvist, who were on the ice for a team-worst 18 shot attempts against at 5-on-5 play.
Hornqvist, at least, appears to be working with a left hand limited by injury. The top line's left winger for Game 5, the oft-injured Bennett, had 13 shots attempted go against him.
But Bennett hadn't played in these playoffs before Game 5.
What was Crosby's excuse? What will be the reason Crosby couldn't get the Penguins back to the Cup Final this time?
If the Penguins don't rally to play for the Cup for the first time since winning it in 2009, somebody somewhere — in Pittsburgh, and if not, certainly in his native Canada — is going to absolve Crosby of responsibility for the loss.
Somebody always does.
The argument will probably be that Crosby scored winning goals in Games 2 and 3 against the Lightning.
Great. Awesome.
Where was he in Game 5? And what in the name of Bobby Orr was Letang doing most of Sunday night?
With fellow defenseman Trevor Daley out because of a broken ankle, Letang needed to match his MVP-level that he was providing most of these playoffs. He fell far below that high bar.
Perhaps the best skating defenseman in the NHL spent a lot of time standing around. When Letang didn't, he was lunging aimlessly and leaving Fleury exposed.
Fleury deserves to be cut some slack only because he hadn't played a full game since March 31. Still, the Penguins' franchise goalie needed to make a couple more saves than he did once Sullivan turned Fleury's team back over to him.
At least Fleury had something to say after the Penguins' blew leads of 2-0 and 3-2 and for the first time failed to win a game they entered the third period leading.
Malkin, who centered the Penguins' most effective line in Game 5, could have offered a few words for his guys.
But he, as did Crosby and Letang, fled the scene.
Maybe it looked too familiar.
It does from this view.
The Penguins are on the verge of another postseason disappointment. That it might happen in Round 3 shouldn't matter.
What did CEO David Morehouse say a couple of years ago? Something about his franchise needing to contend consistently for the Cup?
It has to play for it to do that.
Maybe the Penguins should be playing for more than their playoff lives in Game 6?
How about the Pittsburgh futures of all the guys making the big money?
Rob Rossi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter@RobRossi_Trib.

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