Rangers end Penguins’ crusade for the Cup

The distasteful end to another lost season of Penguins hockey was signaled by a half-empty tallboy beer can hurtling through the dead air of Consol Energy Center, over the boards and onto the ice. A robust chorus of boos followed, serenading an overjoyed bunch of New York Rangers toward their towering king of a goaltender, who waited for them in the crease.

In June of 2009, when the Penguins were passing around Lord Stanley’s Cup, this would have been unthinkable — five years without a return to the finals, each postseason closing with a loss to a lower-seeded team, and the window of time to enjoy the combined talents of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin disappearing a little more with every turn of the calendar from winter to spring.

Coach Dan Bylsma will shoulder much of the blame for this second-round collapse, a 3-1 series advantage officially squandered Tuesday night with a 2-1 defeat in Game 7, but the critics also will look to Mr. Crosby, who had more points than any player in the National Hockey League this season but managed just one goal and two assists in this series.

Bylsma discusses Penguins' game 7 loss to Rangers

Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma discusses his team's elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Video by Matt Freed; 5/13/2014)

It is often said that captains lead with their actions and not their words, so take this for what it’s worth: As the teams exchanged handshakes and those remaining from the sellout crowd of 18,000-plus continued to throatily voice their displeasure, Mr. Crosby lingered by the small door to the ice for all of his teammates and coaches so that they could exit first. He wanted to be the last man standing — his duty to soak up the disappointment as fuel for future seasons.

From Penguins locker room: Sidney Crosby will take plenty of heat for loss

Mr. Bylsma was one of the last to walk by Mr. Crosby and into the tunnel. During the ’09 Cup run, they were improbably joined when the coach was called up from the Penguins’ American Hockey League franchise in Wilkes-Barre

Scranton to be the interim coach of the juggernaut Penguins that general manager Ray Shero was trying to build. Whether Mr. Bylsma and Mr. Crosby will be together for another year will be determined soon enough.

In these Game 7s, there is a human toll, a real price for falling short. Life trajectories turn on the random bounces and whims of a puck. When it’s over, no matter who you are, you feel it.

“It stings,” Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “Expectations for this team are so high. No one wants to hear it, but it’s hard to win the Stanley Cup. It’s hard to win four rounds.”

The Penguins did not lead at any point during the last three games of this series. They simply could not solve Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, the big Swede who improved to a NHL-record 5-0 in Game 7s.

“When you win a Stanley Cup, you win Game 7s and move on,” Mr. Bylsma said. “We had this opportunity, and we didn’t.”

This was Mr. Bylsma’s fifth Game 7 as head coach of the Penguins — his chance to prove that he had learned something from those first two winner-take-all victories that helped bring home the Stanley Cup and the two losses in the following years that took the air out of the franchise’s once-surging momentum.

He told his players that they had to enjoy it, despite the undesirable circumstances that led to a Game 7 having to be staged. To make sure they stayed focused as a group and blocked out the negative energy surrounding them, he had them hole up in a Pittsburgh hotel on Monday night instead of returning to their homes.

The Penguins arrived at the arena Tuesday morning for their morning skate loose, laughing and cutting up together at their short skate.

“There’s enough pressure out there,” Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said after the morning skate, “all kinds of crap going around, so we might as well make it fun.”

They’re all fun for Mike Lange, the longtime voice of the Penguins. Tuesday night would be just one of many Game 7s he’s narrated, so he knew exactly what he was getting into.

“I guess I’m the only one who’s seen all of them,” he said with a grin.

When the Penguins played their first Game 7 against the Islanders in 1975, Mr. Lange was in his first year with the organization, a 26-year-old who had just started dating his future wife, Dale, who worked for the team. The Penguins lost the game and became the second team to win the first three games of a series and drop the next four.

Soon after, the franchise declared bankruptcy, and owner Tad Potter was forced to sell the team. Talk about high stakes.

“They were hoping that series would spring them to get enough money to make it work,” Mr. Lange said. “They came in on May 31 and said, ‘As of tomorrow, nobody has a job.’ ”

Troy Loney can relate. As of 1993, he had been with the Penguins for a solid decade, helping the club bring home back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991-92. The team was dominant all season in ’93, racking up the best record in the NHL, and was a clear favorite to win another one. When the Penguins were upset by the Islanders in Game 7 of the division finals at Civic Arena, Mr. Loney understood immediately what it meant for him and his family.

“I knew that was going to be my last season with the Penguins,” Mr. Loney said. “You build a team to win, and if you don’t win, it’s time to change course, recalibrate, refinance. We had two young children, and the uncertainty of that was probably tougher on my wife than me.”

More than two decades later, Mr. Loney remembers that loss way more than his two Game 7 wins.

Tom Fitzgerald, now an assistant to Mr. Shero, was on the other side of that outcome as a forward with the Islanders. Three years later, then with the Florida Panthers, he would meet the Penguins in another Game 7, this time in the 1996 Eastern Conference finals.

“You visualize being a hero,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “Every player down there is visualizing being a hero, scoring the big goal, blocking a big shot or changing momentum with a big hit.”

He did not envision shooting a puck from the blue line and it finding its way past Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso for the winner, but that’s how it happened. Mr. Fitzgerald watched Tuesday night’s game from the press box at Consol and somehow that was harder than playing a Game 7.

“The experience is a lot different from behind the bench than on the ice,” Mr. Bylsma said. “You have a lot of hyperventilating. Game 7 in Detroit [in 2009], I was holding my breath an awful lot.”

That magical run to the Stanley Cup seems a long way away now for Mr. Bylsma’s Penguins, who outshot the Rangers, 36-20, on Tuesday night but could not breach Mr. Lundqvist’s stalwart defenses.

For Mr. Bylsma, Mr. Crosby and all of the 2013-14 Penguins, the pain won’t subside quickly, and the sour memories will live on for years.

In the short term, the calls for change will be relentless.

“Right now,” Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said, “I’m just trying to comprehend what went wrong and how this happened.”

MORE on the Pens from Gene Collier: Long offseason ahead for Crosby and Penguins

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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