The Penguins truly believed that they were different, that they could become the first team in more than a decade to win consecutive Stanley Cups.
They just did not play like it nearly often enough.
There are plenty of theories to explain their upset loss against Montreal in Round 2 of the playoffs -- everything from fatigue borne of consecutive trips to the Cup final to a shortage of defensive defensemen to sub-par performances by some big-time talent has been mentioned -- and a lot of them are rooted in reality.
Whatever the reason, though, the Penguins became just another victim in the run of upsets by lower-seeded teams in the playoffs this spring, rather that taking advantage of the watered-down field it created to reach the final for the third year in a row. And coming to grips with that squandered opportunity might be even tougher for them than getting pucks past Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak was for most of Round 2.
Nonetheless, the Penguins' nucleus has few, if any, equals and the roster needs fine-tuning, not a complete overhaul, to have them back in contention in 2010-11.
What follows is a look at where the Penguins have been, and where they are headed.
Ray Shero has made a habit of pulling off shrewd personnel moves in the four years since he replaced Craig Patrick as general manager, and he filled some holes well last summer with free agents such as Jay McKee and Mike Rupp.
He never replaced Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill on defense -- not that matching the contracts they got from Los Angeles and Montreal would have been wise, or even possible -- and as the trade deadline approached, opted for a defenseman better known for his skating and puck-moving than his physicality, Jordan Leopold. Adding some muscle and a stay-at-home presence or two should be a priority this summer. So should, if Shero can free the money required, bringing in at least one top-six winger who can score more than 20 goals.
It is hard to argue with Shero's strength-down-the-middle approach to team-building, since it helped the Penguins earn a Cup last year, but they could be a lot more dangerous if they add a legitimate goal-scoring threat on the wing. Nothing new about that, of course.
Coach Dan Bylsma received, and deserved, much of the credit for the Penguins' remarkable turnaround after he replaced Michel Therrien as coach 15 months ago because he introduced an attacking style tailored to the strengths of the team's best players and dramatically changed the atmosphere in the dressing room.
But if he is praised for the part he played in the Penguins winning the 2009 Cup, Bylsma deserves some of the responsibility for their inconsistency throughout the regular season and playoffs and, ultimately, their premature departure from the postseason.
It's not Bylsma's fault when Marc-Andre Fleury leaks in a bad goal or Sergei Gonchar tries to stop a shorthanded rush by Travis Moen by staring hard at him, but either he failed to devise a game plan to overcome Montreal's rope-a-dope strategy or was unable to get his players to execute it on a regular basis. Bylsma talks a lot about the importance of having his team "get to our game," but that did not happen nearly as often as it should have.
Marc-Andre Fleury -- His inconsistent season was a microcosm of his team's, with some flashes of brilliance that promised great things, but too many lapses and letdowns to make another championship possible. Fleury's playoff performance underscores the wisdom of the adage about goaltending that, "It's not what you stop, it's what you allow." He had some excellent games and made some exceptional saves, but allowed far too many soft goals. Fleury was not the entire problem, by any means, but neither was he part of the solution. He can -- and must -- do better in coming seasons.
Brent Johnson -- The ideal No. 2 goalie. Willing to accept his role without complaint, but able to stop pucks even when he goes weeks between starts. Getting his name on a two-year contract a couple of weeks ago was an underrated move by Shero.
Mark Eaton -- Sure, he would be more noticeable -- and valuable -- if he punished opposing forwards with his hitting or made regular end-to-end rushes, but that is not going to happen. Eaton settles for getting in good position, reading plays well and making good first passes. Keeping him around for something close to his current salary of $2 million would be wise.
Alex Goligoski -- He looked like a Norris Trophy candidate the first month of the season, a guy who was in over his head for much of what followed. While Goligoski's offensive gifts are obvious, what he still has to learn about playing the position could fill a how-to manual.
Sergei Gonchar -- There's no question he has been the cornerstone of the Penguins' defense the past few years. There also is none that, at 36, his role is going to diminish in coming seasons, and that should be reflected in his next contract, if he stays. Re-signing him would be fine, but it should be for less money than his current cap hit of $5 million and no more than three years.
Jordan Leopold -- He was becoming a prominent contributor when a concussion inflicted by a hit from Ottawa defenseman Andy Sutton knocked him out of the lineup early in the playoffs. Leopold is eligible for unrestricted free agency and bringing him back at a modest increase on his $1.75 million cap hit would be a good move, especially if Gonchar departs.
Kris Letang -- There's no doubt that he has everything needed to be a total package; putting it all together will be the challenge for Letang and his coaches as his career progresses. If he is able to harness his shot and get it on goal with any sort of regularity, Letang could develop into one of the NHL's better offensive defensemen.
Jay McKee -- A quality shot-blocker who was an excellent addition at $800,000, but his salary was artificially lowered because of a contract buyout by St. Louis. McKee, an unrestricted free agent, would be a good guy to keep around; whether there will be room under the salary cap to do so -- and whether McKee would be content to serve again as a No. 7 defenseman -- is another matter.
Brooks Orpik -- One of the NHL's most consistent hitters, he is the only consistent physical presence on the Penguins' blue line, and that's something that has to change. Orpik played the past four months with a painful abdominal problem that often cut his practices a bit short, but did not have an obvious impact on the way he performed during games.
Craig Adams -- There are certain things he should not be asked to do -- scoring a regular-season goal is high on that list -- but he is an effective fourth-liner who forechecks well, hits hard and kills penalties effectively.
Matt Cooke -- Matched his career-high with 15 goals, kills penalties well and is an integral part of what might be hockey's finest third line. He is an unrestricted free agent, and signing him should be a top priority for Shero. That said, Cooke has to recognize that he is in an ideal situation and avoid overplaying his hand in negotiations.
Sidney Crosby -- Becoming a big-time goal-scorer was a major step in his development, but being neutralized offensively by Montreal in Round 2 figures to gnaw at Crosby all summer. He, as much as anyone on this team, should benefit from having a longer offseason during which to rest, rejuvenate and train, because no one in the game takes his work more seriously.
Pascal Dupuis -- He is best deployed on a third or fourth line because of a so-so scoring touch, although his speed and a surprisingly accurate shot coming down the left side made it possible for him to score 18 goals. Every good team's supporting cast includes guys like Dupuis.
Ruslan Fedotenko -- Until this year, he had a reputation for lackluster regular seasons and productive playoffs. This time, his regular season was downright awful, and he lost his spot in the lineup on three occasions in the postseason. It is hard to imagine that, as an unrestricted free agent, he is a guy the Penguins will make a major effort to retain, or even that Fedotenko would care to come back.
Eric Godard -- His job description might be the most narrow on the team -- Godard is paid to be an enforcer -- but he handles it well. He is one of the game's best fighters and is just unpredictable enough that opponents seem to think twice before doing anything that might provoke him.
Bill Guerin -- He still is pretty effective for a 39-year-old, but the $2 million he made this season might be better used to lure a younger winger to play on Crosby's right side. While Guerin's knack for working the front of the net on power plays would be missed, that is a duty others can learn to handle.
Tyler Kennedy -- A good fit on the third line with Cooke and Jordan Staal, although Kennedy should be able to contribute a little more offensively than he did this season, with 25 points in 62 regular-season games and none in 10 playoff games.
Chris Kunitz -- When healthy, he is an enthusiastic and effective forechecker who is not afraid to go to the net. Kunitz is good for 20-plus goals over 82 games, but it would be nice if he could get closer to 30 with Crosby feeding him pucks.
Evgeni Malkin -- A season after earning the regular-season scoring title and MVP honors in the playoffs, he did not come close to a repeat, on either count. It says something when a player can average better than a point-per-game during the regular season and nearly one per game during the playoffs and still be a major disappointment, but that is the case with Malkin. He has to be better in 2010-11, and there is no reason he should not be.
Alexei Ponikarovsky -- He seemed like an excellent, albeit expensive, pickup when acquired from Toronto for Luca Caputi at the trade deadline: Good size and work ethic, decent hands. Ponikarovsky never came close to producing the way the Penguins believed he could in a top-six role, however, and it is unlikely that either side will move aggressively to keep him here.
Mike Rupp -- He more than doubled his previous personal-best by scoring 13 goals during the regular season, but Rupp's duties going forward should be the same blue-collar ones he has handled throughout his career.
Jordan Staal -- The best No. 3 center in hockey, and one who only is going to get better. Not necessarily a great pure talent, but he is big and smart and ridiculously tough -- playing on a surgically repaired foot a few days after the operation was an incredible show of commitment -- and should be a major part of this team for years to come.
Max Talbot -- If 2008-09 was a dream season -- hey, he scored the Penguins' only two goals in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final -- 2009-10 was a nightmare. Talbot never seemed to shake the effects of offseason shoulder surgery or to have the big-game impact that his history shows he can.
Chris Conner (RW) -- Filled in well enough when given a chance in the NHL that re-signing Conner, a restricted free agent, should be a given. He is an ideal guy to have just a phone call away.
John Curry (G) -- Was the heir apparent to the job as Fleury's backup at this time last year, but now stands fourth on the organizational depth chart. Needs a strong bounce-back season, or he likely will be moving on in 2011.
Deryk Engellland (D) -- A nice physical presence to have on the farm team, but he is eligible for unrestricted free agency and might opt go somewhere with a shorter, more certain path to the NHL.
Dustin Jeffrey (C) -- Is versatile and has good hockey sense. Likely is ready to move into a third- or fourth-line role with the Penguins if such a spot comes open.
Nick Johnson (RW) -- Has shown a pretty fair goal-scoring touch in the minors, but whether that can translate to the NHL remains to be seen.
Mark Letestu (C) -- His solid work in four playoff appearances should have him squarely in the mix for a full-time job in the NHL this fall. Letestu is smart and responsible and can handle a variety of roles.
Ben Lovejoy (D) -- Barring some surprising pickups in free agency, Lovejoy is a pretty good bet to be on the Penguins' opening-night roster, if not in their lineup. He is solid, reliable and tough in his own end and can add a dash of offense to the mix occasionally.
Eric Tangradi (LW) -- The only consensus top-six forward prospect the Penguins have, now that Caputi is gone. Tangradi figures to get every opportunity to claim an NHL job at training at camp, but he is only 21, so if he does not seem ready, the Penguins should not force-feed the league to him.
Brad Thiessen (G) -- Supplanted Curry as the No. 1 goalie in Wilkes-Barre this winter and, at least for now, looks like Johnson's eventual successor as the backup to Fleury.
Tim Wallace (RW) -- A borderline NHL player, but he can handle a blue-collar, physical role when called upon.