The glory of the 2009 Penguins Stanley Cup championship is a fading memory, pushed from the front of our consciousness by a string of bitter, stunning playoff losses in each succeeding season.
Choke is a cruel word in the sports lexicon and often used too easily. This, however, is a team, by virtue of its annual failure against a lower-seeded opponent, for which it might well apply.
There’s been a long litany of crushing defeats: Being eliminated in the second round by seventh-seeded Montreal in 2010; blowing a 3-1 lead to Tampa Bay in 2011; being humiliated in a first-round loss to Philadelphia in 2012; scoring two goals in four games and being swept in the conference final by Boston in 2013.
It's hard to top all of that. But, turns out, it could be done.
In a series that will live in franchise infamy, the Penguins allowed a three game to one advantage slip away against the New York Rangers. In the decisive game 7 last night, the Penguins fought the good fight but were no match for the man known in New York City as King Henrik. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist was spectacular in denying the Penguins in a 2-1 loss at the Consol Energy Center.
There was no shame in this defeat.
There is a mountain of shame in losing this series.
Three of the four Penguins losses were at the Consol Energy Center. After taking their 3-1 lead, the Penguins, a team known for the might of its offense, were outscored, 10-3. The scores were 5-1, 3-1, 2-1. The team of Crosby, Malkin, Neal and Kunitz could not score more than one goal in each of the final three games.
Some of that is attributable to the strong play of Lundqvist, more of it is attributable to the poor play of the Penguins.
Where to begin?
* If the buck stops at the top, that would not be coach Dan Bylsma but owner Mario Lemieux. He’s a beloved and revered Pittsburgh legend who delegates authority and prefers not be be involved with the day-to-day running of the team. But he’s the man who brought back Bylsma and extended him after a fourth straight playoff loss to a lower-seeded team last year. He’s the man who has given a free rein to general manager Ray Shero.
* Fingers have been pointing at Bylsma all season. Some of that might be directed at Shero. He walked into a spectacular situation with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang, among others, already in the organization. He made some terrific additions by trade, but little via the draft. He might have overplayed his hand and disrupted team chemistry last season when he brought in veteran talent that contributed little in the playoff run.
* Bylsma’s future was posted here yesterday and it is not bright. The team owes him for two more years, but it’s hard to envision the scenario in which he will be brought back. Since winning in 2009, he’s been the coach whose team lost to a lower-seeded opponent every year since.
* Crosby finished this postseason with one goal in 13 games. He was a -4. He had two shots on goal last night. In a post-game interview, Crosby said, ''I’d love to tear it up every series, but that’s not the case. It’s tough to lose, but when you’re unable to contribute the way you want, it’s tougher.’’
Not since Barry Bonds has a Pittsburgh star performed so abysmally in the postseason. Despite persistent rumors that he was injured, there appears to be little substance to those comments.
There already are cries to break up the Penguins but that’s not likely. Some players will be gone through free agency and others because they did not perform well enough. But the core is very likely to stay together in the belief -- hope -- that a new coach, if Bylsma is fired, can mold this talent into a postseason power.
The Penguins have a huge offseason in front of them. First a decision must be made on Bylsma. If it is the expected one, the right coach must be brought in to deal with an established, veteran team that still has the capability of being a Stanley Cup contender. There are some crucial personnel decisions. The Penguins would love to keep defenseman Matt Niskanen, but first must find the cap room. Fleury was outplayed by Lundqvist but there’s no disgrace in that. If Lemieux and Shero still believe this nucleus can contend for a Cup, Fleury will likely be brought back. He played well through most of the 13 games.
The expectation for the Crosby-Malkin nucleus was more than one Stanley Cup. There’s still a chance for that to happen.