Pittsburgh Penguins Left With Many Questions After Loss

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For the record, I’m a diehard Philadelphia Flyers fan, so it might seem biased for me to write about the Penguins losing. But Penguins fans will agree that after a season with astronomical expectations, an elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals at the hands of the Boston Bruins was a disappointing outcome.

The top-seeded Penguins lost tonight in the Eastern Conference Finals, ending a 2013 season filled with star talents and high hopes. Without a doubt, the Penguins were one of the most dynamic teams in the NHL this season, easily winning the Atlantic Division by 16 points and claiming the top seed in the 2013 playoffs. Their 3.4 goals per game led all NHL clubs in 2013, and forwards Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and Pascal Dupuis each scored 20 goals in the lockout-shortened season. Captain Sidney Crosby ranked third in the league in total points with 56.

Heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Penguins were filled with confidence, poise, and leadership. They got off to a flying start, shutting out the #8 New York Islanders 5-0 in their first playoff game. But much like last year’s playoff series against the Flyers, the Penguins’ main problem was the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury. After his initial shutout, Fleury allowed an average of 4.7 goals per game before being benched in favor of backup Thomas Vokoun. Fleury allowed several goals from shots made behind the goal line, and again lacked confidence between the pipes.

Vokoun was a suitable replacement, besting Fleury’s goals allowed average by more than one goal. And the Penguins still put up great offensive numbers, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang among the top five point scorers in the playoffs. But still the Penguins struggled to get wins. Perhaps it was the strong momentum and fan support of the Bruins in the months of the “Boston Strong” movement. Maybe it had something to do with team chemistry, though.

Penguins GM Ray Shero was a big buyer at this season’s April 3 trade deadline, adding several veteran names to add depth to the already dynamic Penguins roster. They acquired Dallas Stars captain LW Brenden Morrow to bolster the third line, and Calgary Flames captain RW Jarome Iginla to provide another scoring threat. They also traded for 34-year-old defenceman Douglas Murray from the San Jose Sharks. And that was in addition to Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Dupuis, Kunitz, Letang, and Orpik.

But as the 2013 offseason arrives for the Penguins, there are many questions to answer. Chieflly, what to do with Marc-Andre Fleury. He is 28, with plenty of time left in the NHL, but he hasn’t won a playoff series as starter since the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals. He is due to receive $5 million for the next two years before becoming a free agent in 2015. If he can’t improve his confidence in the playoffs, he may be on a short leash. The Penguins are also greatly restricted by the new salary cap; they have $61 million already committed for next year and the cap is $64 million. Notable names left off next year’s roster include Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Pascal Dupuis, Douglas Murray, and Mark Eaton. This is primarily affected by the “megacontracts” of Sidney Crosby ($8.7 million cap hit), Evgeni Malkin ($8.7 million), James Neal ($5 million), and Paul Martin ($5 million).

So after a tremendous regular season, the Penguins are left hoping for more and wondering why their playoff run came to a screeching halt on Boston. But make no mistake: the Penguins are still a great team with elite talent, and they will continue to be a frustrating and intimidating opponent. Even for the Flyers.

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New York Rangers Fire John Tortorella

Just days after losing Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the New York Rangers have already started a team shakeup. Earlier Wednesday, Rangers management fired head coach John Tortorella after five seasons behind the bench in Manhattan. Tortorella served as head coach since February 2009, and went 171-144 in the regular season with the Rangers.

Tortorella was known for his fiery personality, both on the bench and in front of the media. His Rangers teams were known for their physical style of play, selfless defensive ability, and propensity for fighting opponents. Tortorella coached the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Stanley Cup victory in 2004, and leads American coaches in career wins with 410.

The Rangers lost twice in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to the Washington Capitals in 2009 and 2011, before breaking through in 2012. That season, the Rangers led the Eastern Conference with 109 points and reached the Conference Finals before losing in six games to their rival New Jersey Devils. The Rangers won each of their three playoff series under Tortorella in seven games, including this year in the Conference Quarterfinals against the Washington Capitals.

Tortorella also brought several big name stars to Broadway to lead the Rangers during his tenure. In 2011, the Rangers signed forward Brad Richards to a nine-year contract worth $58.5 million. Richards, currently 33, previously won the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy under Tortorella in Tampa Bay. This past offseason, the Rangers brought in prolific goalscorer Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets to strengthen the front lines. Still, the Rangers could not find their niche from the previous season and finished in sixth place in the East, losing to the second-seeded Bruins in the second round.

Now the New York Rangers enter a period of uncertainty headed into the offseason. Tortorella is gone, and Brad Richards will likely become victim to the NHL’s new amnesty clause, which allows teams to buy out a player’s contract. This means that Richards (7 years, $36 million remaining) would be paid his $36 million over the next 14 years. Chances are, though, both men will find jobs soon enough.