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Penguins players, fans feel 'hollow' after being swept out of playoffs

| Sunday, June 9, 2013, 11:09 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury collects his sticks as players clean out their lockers on Sunday, June 9, 2013, in Consol Energy Center.

Bryan Seybert and Holly Schaefer stood in front of the Mario Lemieux statue outside Consol Energy Center, took deep breaths and forced smiles for a photograph meant to be memorable — on a weekend Penguins fans would rather forget.

The couple spent Sunday taking pictures in front of Pittsburgh landmarks to be used as place cards for tables at their wedding next month in Duquesne University's Power Center, which overlooks the Uptown arena.

Walking around Downtown, they couldn't help but see Stanley Cup playoff signs and banners that served as painful reminders and what Schaefer called a “hollow feeling” caused by the Penguins' colossal collapse and the Boston Bruins' sweep in the Eastern Conference final.

“It's just a little shocking. I could've seen them losing the series, but not like this,” said Seybert, 25, of Robinson. “It's been like, ‘Don't bring it up.' The more we talk about it, the more we get upset about it.”

Penguins fans and players alike had circled this week on their calendars as the start of the Stanley Cup finals, anticipating that the hockey club that assembled the most world-class talent in the salary-cap era would play for a chance at its fourth championship.

Instead, the streets surrounding the arena were almost empty two days after Friday's 1-0 loss in Game 4.

“When you have a team that is built for the long haul and it's built a certain way with some of the highest skilled players in the game, and you lose in four straight and you only score two goals and you don't score any power play goals and you never have a lead, the manner in which you lose really colors it,” said Scott Burnside, an NHL analyst for ESPN. “Fair or not, it distorts what the team accomplished.”

Nyarayi and Jeff Wickert walked past the arena on their way to Washington Plaza. From their ninth-floor apartment, they could hear on game nights the party across Centre Avenue at the FedEx Ground Fan Zone, where thousands watched the playoff games on the Trib Total Media Big Screen. They compared it to a concert, where the sound of music and smell of food permeated the neighborhood.

“It's like a ghost town,” said Nyarayi Wickert, 30. “Usually, we hear people chanting, ‘Let's Go Pens!' for every goal they score. It was silent during the whole Game 4 almost. When it ended, everybody just walked away. It was very abrupt. We got swept for the first time in 34 years. It's nothing to be proud of.”

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma echoed that sentiment of “disbelief that we're not playing hockey right now.”

“It's definitely that shock and disbelief and a little bit surreal that we got eliminated,” Bylsma said. “That we got beat in four straight and didn't win a game against the Bruins.”

Inside the dressing room, veteran winger Brenden Morrow expressed disappointment that the Penguins fell short. Acquired at the trade deadline from the Dallas Stars, where he was team captain, Morrow came for the chance to claim the Cup for the first time in his career.

The players packed their bags with equipment, cleared their locker stalls and said their goodbyes, not knowing who wouldn't return next season.

“It's almost a little bit embarrassing being out and about, with the expectations that we had ourselves. To not be there, it's not an easy time of the year,” Morrow said. “You still want to get with your teammates, some guys you may never see again. So, this week is bittersweet.”

Outside the arena, standing behind fences not far from Our Way and Pride Street, a hundred autograph seekers stood for hours waiting for Penguins players to exit and say goodbye for the summer, if not forever.

Winger Jarome Iginla, another veteran acquisition who was captain in Calgary, stopped his car and signed memorabilia. Winger Pascal Dupuis, an impending free agent who fought back tears while conducting interviews, did something the autograph hounds say almost no player does: He parked his car and walked the line, signing every item.

“I think it's more somber,” said Mike Bober, 41, a season-ticket holder from Ross. “I was thinking I'd be here tonight for Game 5. I really did not think there'd be a sweep. This was the last thing on my mind.”

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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