PITTSBURGH - About 15 minutes after their season had concluded, three of the Penguins stars -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal — sat silently in the locker room, appearing in shock, another spring wasted.
They will be leveled with much blame.
The New York Rangers won Game 7 at Consol Energy Center, 2-1, their defensive system and the performance of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist too much for the Penguins' stars to navigate.
Crosby was held to one goal this postseason, and Neal scored twice. Malkin, brilliant at times in this playoffs, was fairly quiet during the past three games.
“It's hard to say right now,” Neal said. “I mean, it's just so tough to say right now. We did everything we could to ... win a Game 7, and it makes it even harder when you have a stranglehold on a series and can't finish it off. At the end of the day, you need to score goals in the biggest moments, and we didn't do that.”
Neal had two of the Penguins' best chances to even the score after the Rangers had gone ahead 2-1.
He was left alone in the slot late in the second period, but the puck drifted far enough away from him that he was unable to muster much of a shot.
In the third period, Neal barged around the Rangers defense and attempted to wrap a puck around Lundqvist with a move to his forehand. It, too, was denied.
“I needed to step up and get a big goal at a big moment,” Neal said. “You do everything you can to try and get that goal, to give your club a boost.”
Neal came close to scoring, at least. The same can't be said of Crosby and Malkin.
In the final three games against the Rangers, the burst of energy Malkin displayed against Columbus was missing.
“We tried,” he said. “I had a couple of chances. Lundqvist just stopped every puck, you know?”
The Penguins captain endured a spring unlike any other.
At 26, he entered the postseason with the unquestioned reputation as the world's best hockey player. Some may question that distinction now, as he finished the postseason with one goal (and nine points) in 13 games.
Dating to the regular season, he finished his campaign by scoring once in his last 18 games and by scoring only 10 goals in his past 42 games.
He possesses few answers for what went wrong, though he did make it clear that he isn't suffering from an injury.
“I'd love to tear it up every series,” said Crosby, who finished Game 7 with only two shots on net. “But it's not always the case. When you're not able to contribute as much as you'd like, it's tough.”
Other Penguins' standouts struggled against the Rangers.
Defenseman Paul Martin, brilliant against Columbus, didn't register a point in seven. Another defenseman, Matt Niskanen, notched eight points against Columbus but just one against the Rangers.
Left wing Chris Kunitz and defenseman Kris Letang combined for only five shots, few of them threatening.
The Penguins, long known for boasting a galaxy stars, will spend the summer wondering when their best players will regain their fastballs. Their legs and hands largely looked dead in the final three games.
“Scoring one goal (in the third period) shouldn't have been out of the realm,” Niskanen said.
But it was. The Penguins managed only 14 goals in seven games against the Rangers.
(Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.)