As Penguins postseason meltdowns go, the one that ended inside rollicking TD Garden Friday night was slower, deeper and more mystifying than the three that immediately preceded it, and the fallout will be malignant.
The Boston Bruins, beaten reliably by these same Penguins in the Penguins' record-breaking regular season, turned around and pounded them when it mattered, abused them in every way short of singing them Sweep Caroline.
For the first time since 34 years then, the Penguins were chased from a playoff series with a big swooping broom, having averaged precisely a half a goal per game and failing to score at all in this Eastern Conference final's final 127 minutes, 8 seconds.
Put another way, they performed offensively in direct disproportion to their available talent, a revolting punctuation that figures to bring swift and dramatic repercussions. When their dressing room doors swung open at 10:43 p.m., what was still at that moment Dan Bylsma's team sat slumped against the four walls, Sidney Crosby sitting next to Evgeni Malkin, two superstars who had just combined for exactly zero points in nearly 14 periods of hockey.
"There's not much to say," said Crosby as Malkin sat forward and put his head in his hands. "We had our chances, that's for sure. You can talk about their defense and their patience, but whether it was hitting posts or whatever, we just didn't execute."
Across the room, Jarome Iginla, who chose the Penguins over the Bruins when looking for a ride on the Stanley Cup Express at the trade deadline, spoke a truth that was painfully self-evident:
"It sucks not moving on," he said. "
It stings because this is a special group that had a great opportunity. We were in close games, but we didn't get it done."
The Penguins essentially spent the balance of their forgettable presence in these NHL playoffs the same way they spent most all of this series: Not putting the puck in the net.
On their first attempt with their hapless power play Friday night, they tried simply not shooting the puck at all, but that produced the same result as when they shoot it five times.
As the third period began, you had to wonder if the Penguins would start shooting the puck away from the Boston net.
Could that have hurt?
The pity of this series is that it's doomed to be remembered in Pittsburgh for the Penguins' offensive impotence than for the generally superb work of Tomas Vokoun, who again Friday night turned back great Bruins scoring chances, one after the next.
Nathan Horton approached him with the 1,000th Kris Letang turnover of the series late in the middle period of a scoreless game, but Vokoun's flashing glove swallowed it whole, just as surely as he stoned an excellent chance for Tyler Seguin from the left circle a few minutes earlier.
Except for a less than stellar first period in Game 2, Vokoun likely was the Penguins' most consistent performer in a postseason in which the Penguins dearly hoped to keep him off the ice altogether.
It was Marc-Andre Fleury's disintegration after four Islanders encounters in Round 1 that brought Vokoun to center stage, and he never gave Bylsma any good reason to sit him.
He brought a 2.11 goals against average for this postseason into Game 4, better than his career postseason figure (2.30), better than his season number (2.45) and the number for his entire career (2.55).
In other words, he was the one Penguins player in these playoffs who was better than himself.
He was the unwavering dance band on the unsinkable Titanic.
Until Adam McQuaid rifled one over his right shoulder five minutes into the third period, he was working on another postseason shutout.
But in an irony that won't soon fade from his consciousness, the team that planned to win the Stanley Cup without him, the team he lugged out of the first round and into the third, suddenly required him to be perfect.
In the hour of their most desperate need, he stopped 23 of 24 shots, meaning he was minimally imperfect for a team that was maximally dreadful.
Letang was on the ice for 7 of the 12 Boston goals in the series. James Neal was a minus-7. Malkin a minus-5. Two nights earlier, the Penguins missed on 53 of 54 shots.
If their scoring touch vanished after they scored 13 times in the final two games against Ottawa in Round 2, their spoken confidence never waned.
Crosby said after a morning skate Friday that the solution was merely to keep shooting.
"Eventually they'll go in," he said.
100 percent true.
But now eventually means October.
Gene Collier: email@example.com. First Published June 8, 2013 4:15 AM