Penguins face murky future after early exit



PITTSBURGH - Sidney Crosby will be back. Evgeni Malkin too.

After that, what happens to the Pittsburgh Penguins over another postseason disappointment is anybody's guess.

Dan Bylsma, the winningest coach in franchise history, may be out of a job. Ray Shero, the general manager who spent the last half-decade unsuccessfully trying to replicate the success of 2009, could also be gone.

When Crosby lifted the Stanley Cup in triumph on that warm night in Detroit five years ago, it was supposed to mark the beginning of hockey's next dynasty.

That hasn't materialized. A handful of maddening springs later, it might be time to move on. Bylsma allowed as much Tuesday night after the Penguins fell to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, a 2-1 defeat that capped a stunning collapse after Pittsburgh grabbed a commanding 3-1 series lead.

"You think about it being the last game," Bylsma said.

While the Rangers exulted at one end of the Consol Energy Center ice after advancing to hockey's final four, the Penguins solemnly lined up for a handshake after losing a Game 7 at home for the third time in five seasons.

This isn't the way it was supposed to go. Not this time. Despite losing over 500 man games to injury — easily the highest total in the NHL — Pittsburgh strolled to the Metropolitan Division title behind the steady and spectacular play of Crosby, who led the league in scoring and is a heavy favorite to win his second MVP award.

After surviving a bumpy six-game series with plucky Columbus in the opening round, the Penguins appeared in total control after a 4-2 win in Game 4 against the weary Rangers.

Then it all fell apart. A dismal 5-1 loss in Game 5 shifted momentum to the guys in the blue shirts. New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist did the rest, including 35 sublime saves in the deciding game.

Defenseman Matt Niskanen called the debacle in Game 5 a "missed opportunity," one that could lead to significant change in a dressing room that has been among the most stable in the league.

"When expectations are high and you don't win, that's normal," Crosby said. "I'm sure there will be a lot of questions."

At the moment, there don't appear to be a lot of answers.

Crosby insists he's healthy but lacked his otherworldly sharpness at times, scoring just one goal in 13 playoff games.

"It wasn't a lack of effort or competing or anything like that," he said. "I'd love to tear it up every series, but it's not always the case. It doesn't make it any easier, I'll tell you that. It's tough losing as it is but when you're unable to contribute as much as you'd like, it's even tougher."

Maybe, but it's become all too common for one of the NHL's marquee franchises. The Penguins have sold out every home game since Valentine's Day in 2007 and play a brand of entertaining hockey that is overwhelmingly successful in the regular season but doesn't always translate in the tight-checking crucible of the playoffs.

The league's top power play during the regular season went just 1 for 20 with the man advantage against New York. Unable to generate much offense from in front of the net, the Penguins spent most of the last three games unsuccessfully peppering Lundqvist from long distance.

It's a path that led only to frustration and an all-too-familiar result: the Penguins watching another team skate off the ice in celebration.

It happened in 2010, when Pittsburgh fell to Montreal at home in Game 7. It happened last spring, when the Penguins failed to lead the Boston Bruins for a single second while getting swept out of the conference finals.

Ray Shero doubled down after seeing his team silenced by the Bruins. He awarded Bylsma a two-year extension, signed Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang to long-term deals and brought back defenseman Rob Scuderi to give the blue line some heft.

Different path. Same result. Only this time there will be no doubling down. There will be only change.

"It's all tough," Malkin said. "We have great teammates here. We work hard. But 3-1 up in series and last three games we lost, it's tough. See you next season, I don't know."

Neither does anybody else.


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