Yohe’s 10 observations: It all goes wrong and suddenly Penguins need help to make playoffs

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PITTSBURGH — Alex Nedeljkovic said he didn’t run out of gas.

But the Pittsburgh Penguins may have run out of time.

A disastrous Saturday put the Penguins on the outside of the playoff picture, punctuated by a 6-4 loss to the Boston Bruins at PPG Paints Arena.

Now, for the Penguins to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs, they’ll likely need to win their final two games of the season and get some help. They no longer control their destiny.

“It’s obviously not what we want,” Rickard Rakell said. “But all we can do is focus on our next game. Nothing else matters now.”

Essentially everything that could have gone wrong for the Penguins did on Saturday. The Islanders secured a point against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Saturday afternoon. Later in the day, the Capitals beat the Lightning in Washington and the Flyers beat the Devils in Philadelphia. Those results were crippling blows to the Penguins, who proceeded to fall to the Bruins.

Nedeljkovic, very much a catalyst during the Penguins’ incomprehensible playoff run, allowed three goals in a 3:27 span in the second period.

He refused to blame fatigue.

“I actually felt better today than I did on Thursday night,” Nedeljkovic said. “I thought it was a pretty good first period. We didn’t give them much. I don’t know how to explain what happened.”

He was replaced by Tristan Jarry, who hasn’t started a game since March 22 in Dallas. It certainly wasn’t a night for good goaltending. The Penguins were on a power play in the second period and down 3-1 when Jarry weakly threw the puck toward the right corner, directly to Charlie Coyle. He found longtime Penguins killer Brad Marchand, who delivered a short-handed goal that crippled the Penguins with a 4-1 deficit.

The Penguins showed plenty of fight in this game, and goals from Bryan Rust and Michael Bunting kept them within shouting distance.

But it wasn’t to be — the deficit was simply too much.

Jake DeBrusk started the scoring for the Bruins, and it wasn’t a particularly good goal for Nedeljkovic to allow.

“The first one, the puck was in my legs,” he said. “Thought I had it. He took a whack at it and it found a way in.”

Only 13 seconds later, Pavel Zacha took advantage of a terrible Nedeljkovic rebound to make it 2-0.

“I just didn’t control the rebound,” Nedeljkovic said.

After Rust scored to give the building life, Kevin Shattenkirk scored 68 seconds later on a shot that Nedeljkovic could clearly see.

“I got beat from distance,” he said. “There’s no explanation. It wasn’t good enough.”

At that point, coach Mike Sullivan gave him the hook.

Jarry required only 3:19 to make a mental blunder, giving the Bruins their fourth goal.

Goaltending has been a strong point for the Penguins all season, but it failed them in their biggest game, which happened to come against one of the NHL’s best teams. The goaltending lapse was simply too much to overcome.

Suddenly, their playoff hopes look grave.

“We just have to keep believing,” Rakell said. “We’ve come this far. We have to keep going now. We have to do it.”

Ten postgame observations

• Sullivan will no doubt absorb some heat from the fan base for running the wheels off of Nedeljkovic, who was starting his 11th straight game. He only had 20 starts over five months before then, so it’s certainly fair to speculate that fatigue had become an issue.

It’s a tough thing to analyze because only Nedeljkovic knows if his fatigue level has become a problem. He told Sullivan he was fresh. I don’t blame Sullivan for taking him at his word.

I will say this: In my opinion, it speaks volumes of how the organization currently views Jarry that he was never given a start during this stretch. Yes, the Penguins were accumulating points, and yes, Nedeljkovic did a very fine job in net. But he wasn’t exactly doing a Patrick Roy impression. Quite honestly, I don’t think the Penguins have much trust in Jarry these days. They’ll say otherwise because they have to. I understand the concept of riding a hot goaltender, but typically in such a situation, when a No. 1 goalie is healthy, the net again becomes his. That didn’t happen until Nedeljkovic fell apart. And it makes me wonder about Jarry’s long-term future in Pittsburgh.

Who starts on Monday against the Nashville Predators? I have no clue.

• Jarry, of course, was in a difficult position. He came in cold, with his team down 3-1, and playing against a great Bruins team that had the advantage of playing against the defensively deficient Penguins.

Still, the play he made on Marchand’s goal was inexcusable and was very typical of how spacey he can be. You can’t just give the Bruins a short-handed chance like that. It wasn’t a smart play.

• Too many players were invisible in this game, and that’s something we’ve seen all year. The bottom six just isn’t good. Emil Bemstrom? Awful. Valtterri Puustinen? Invisible. Radim Zohorna? I just don’t think he’s an NHL player. Reilly Smith? You’d think the guy with that kind of big-game experience would show up in a big game, but he rarely does. You can’t have that many passengers.

• The goal Drew O’Connor scored in the third period would be the stuff of legend if the Penguins had won this game. It was one of the greatest goals we’ve seen in a long, long time.

“Incredible goal,” Sullivan said.

Sure was.

He’s figuring it out.

• Rust showed up in a big game. Again. What else is new?

That’s 28 goals for Rust this season, which is a career high. He’s missed 20 games, too.

What a player.

• The Penguins are simply a terrible defensive team. It’s not just one player. It’s the whole team. The amount of open space the Bruins routinely had in their offensive zone, compared to what the Penguins’ forwards had to compete with, spoke volumes.

Frankly, the Penguins have overcome their deficiencies in recent games to accumulate all of those points. But those issues still very much remain.

• Funny thing is, I didn’t think the Bruins were particularly good tonight. They took advantage of weak goaltending and weak defensive plays from the Penguins.

I give the Bruins credit for what they’ve done this season and, in a weak Eastern Conference, they’re certainly a contender. But they’re so bad down the middle that I don’t think they can make their way through the East. They’re terrific in net, at wing and on the blue line. But are Zacha, Coyle, Morgan Geekie and Jesper Boqvist good enough down the middle? Oh, they’re good players, but there isn’t a star among them. Teams without at least one star at center have a tough time winning championships.

• It was Erik Karlsson’s 1,000th career game but he hasn’t looked like the Hall of Famer that he is during his time with the Penguins, and he didn’t in this game.

He took a bad penalty, was a minus-4, was guilty of a couple of bad defensive blunders, and simply didn’t have a good game. I realize he isn’t paid for his play in the defensive zone, but it simply can’t be this bad all the time. He consistently made mistakes in this game.

• The pregame ceremony for Karlsson was handled well, as always.

And I will say this about Karlsson: He’s utterly maddening, hasn’t played at the level the Penguins needed, and yet, he’s such a Penguin — everything about him. It would be great if he figured it all out at some point because the offensive flair and the indifference to playing smart, defensive hockey is very much part of the Penguins’ DNA.

• So, here’s what the Penguins need: They have to beat the Predators and Islanders to finish the season, almost for certain. They also need the Capitals to lose a game (Washington still plays Boston and Philadelphia) and Detroit to lose a game (they play Montreal twice) which might be a problem for the Penguins.

They theoretically can catch the Islanders if New York loses in regulation to New Jersey on Monday and if the Penguins beat the Predators and then the Islanders in regulation.

So, sure, they can still make the playoffs. But this was a horrible evening for the Penguins and, as usual, their flaws were very much exposed.

They were probably going to lose a game in regulation at some point because they just aren’t that good. They just picked the worst time to do it.

(Photo of Tristan Jarry replacing Penguins goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic during the second period on Saturday: Jeanine Leech / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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