Peter Diana, Post-GazetteThe Penguins' Sidney Crosby hangs his head after Antoine Vermette scored for Ottawa past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the third period of last night's season-ending, 3-0 loss in Ottawa.
OTTAWA -- At one point, forward Evgeni Malkin's whereabouts were unknown after he slipped away from his Russian team in Europe.
At one point, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was on the verge of a demotion to the minor leagues after a shaky stretch in training camp.
At one point, forward Jordan Staal seemed to have one skate out the door on his way back to junior hockey.
At no point did anyone doubt Sidney Crosby, though, and the Penguins' second-year center established himself as arguably the best player in the NHL by capturing the league scoring title with 120 points and becoming the youngest to do so at 19.
Whether it was Crosby's season or coach Michel Therrien's guidance in his first full season or the convergence of many elements, the Penguins put together a turnaround that, in hindsight, probably will trump the disappointment of their loss to Ottawa in the first round of the playoffs.
The Senators sent the playoff-inexperienced Penguins home by beating them, 3-0, last night at Scotiabank Place in Game 5 of their first-round series.
"We had a good regular season," Crosby said after the game. "It was a disappointing end, but I think we exceeded a lot of people's expectations."
After finishing second-to-last in the NHL last season with 58 points, the Penguins set the bar for 2006-07 at making the playoffs. They not only reached the postseason for the first time since 2001, but also showed the fourth-best improvement over one season in NHL history, soaring to 105 points to earn the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. It was the second-most points in team history.
That was just two points off the Atlantic Division lead and eight points behind league points leaders Buffalo and Detroit.
"The turnaround we had is impressive," Crosby said. "It says a lot about the guys and the organization."
They did it largely on the backs of their youngest players.
Malkin, 20, turned up in Los Angeles last summer, then turned it up after signing with the Penguins. He led all rookies with 33 goals and 85 points.
Fleury, 22, settled in as the starting goalie and won 40 games, second-most in franchise history.
Staal, barely 18 at the start of the season, not only made the team but played like a veteran, taking regular shifts at even strength and on the top penalty-killing unit. He led the league with seven short-handed goals and with a 22.1 shooting percentage. He had 29 goals and 42 points and led the team with a plus-minus rating of plus-16.
They were three of five emerging young players who spent their first full season in the NHL -- the others being wingers Colby Armstrong and Michel Ouellet -- and among nine regulars who are 25 or younger.
"We had a lot of rookies this year, and they got better," Therrien said. "They played with a lot of passion."
That dovetailed with several veterans, most notably forwards Mark Recchi, 39, and Gary Roberts, 40, and defenseman Sergei Gonchar, 33. Roberts was acquired at the NHL trade deadline.
"Gary Roberts, what a team guy. What a warrior. I can't say enough about him," Armstrong said. "We had great leaders all year long, big leaders."
Even with the promise the team showed through the first four months of the season, making the playoffs was an iffy proposition until the Penguins ran off a 14-0-2 stretch that started in early January and turned a daunting March schedule into a 12-3-2 month that pushed them into the postseason -- perhaps for the first time in a long run.
"There's nothing to be ashamed of," Therrien said. "You look at the big picture, it's a huge step."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.