Penguins championship core to return after loss in Qualifiers

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The Pittsburgh Penguins lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, the Eastern Conference hub city.

The Penguins, the No. 5 seed in the East, lost the series in four games to the Canadiens, the No. 12 seed. Pittsburgh moved into first place in the Metropolitan Division on Feb. 18 before losing eight of its final 11 regular-season games.

Overall, including the regular season and postseason, the Penguins lost 11 of their final 15 games.

Here is a look at what happened during the 2020 postseason for the Penguins and why things could be even better next season: 

 
The Skinny

Potential unrestricted free agents: Justin Schultz, D; Conor Sheary, F; Sam Lafferty, C; Patrick Marleau, F 

Potential restricted free agents: Matt Murray, G; Tristan Jarry, G; Jared McCann, F; Juuso Riikola, D; Dominik Simon, F; Evan Rodrigues, F; Anthony Angello, F; Adam Johnson, F 

Potential 2020 NHL Draft picks: Five

 
What went wrong 

Little production from Malkin: Evgeni Malkin had one assist in four games against the Canadiens. The 34-year-old center didn’t play all that poorly, leading the Penguins with 21 shots on goal. But after an impressive training camp and scoring 74 points (25 goals, 49 assists) in 55 regular-season games, more was expected from the three-time Stanley Cup champion. He said as much Thursday. In Game 4, he again led Pittsburgh with four shots, but failed to score. 

Third defense pair struggles: Justin Schultz was on the ice for six of Montreal’s 10 goals this series, including each of its two goals Friday. His partner, Jack Johnson, was on for five of those 10. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan made several changes to the lineup for Game 4, but only to the forward group. He chose not to insert Chad Ruhwedel or Juuso Riikola into the third pair, and Schultz was caught with his back to Canadiens forward Artturi Lehkonen, who put the Montreal ahead 1-0 with 4:11 remaining in the third period. 

Power play: The Penguins finished the series 3-for-17 with the man-advantage. Most of that came through Games 1 and 2, when they scored once on 12 chances. Pittsburgh lost 3-2 in Game 3 despite scoring twice on three power plays, but failed to convert on two chances in Game 4 before Lehkonen scored. 

 
Reasons for optimism 

Championship-caliber core: As has been the case at the end of each Penguins season for more than a decade, Pittsburgh can be sure center Sidney Crosby, defenseman Kris Letang and Malkin will be back. Whether time will ever catch up to one or more of those three remains a separate question. But for now, there seems to be little reason to believe they won’t look like themselves for at least one more shot at a Stanley Cup. 

Getting healthy: The Penguins were haunted by injuries to key players throughout the regular season. Crosby had core muscle surgery, forward Jake Guentzel had shoulder surgery and defenseman Brian Dumoulin had ankle surgery. Malkin, Letang and forward Bryan Rust were among others who missed time because of injury. Coming back rested for a full regular season could do Pittsburgh some good. 

High-quality depth: Crosby, Malkin and Letang still receive much of the attention, but Guentzel scored 43 points (20 goals, 23 assists) in 39 games this season, proving he’s not just a product of playing on a line with Crosby. Rust had his best NHL season with 56 points (27 goals, 29 assists) in 55 games. Defensemen John Marino and Marcus Pettersson became a solid second defense pair. That could give the Penguins enough balance for another deep run.

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