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Starkey: The Penguins' 5-year plunge

| Wednesday, June 11, 2014, 10:29 p.m.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby raises the Stanley Cup after beating the Red Wings, 2-1, to win Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on Friday, June 12, 2009, in Detroit.

Happy anniversary?

Yes, in some ways it's very happy. And always will be. Five years ago tonight, the Penguins summited Mt. Lidstrom. Their 21-year-old captain, Sidney Crosby, hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup and paraded it around Joe Louis Arena for all the hockey world to see.

Crosby passed the Cup to Bill Guerin, who passed it to Sergei Gonchar, who passed it to Miroslav Satan (I forgot about that) and so on down the line. It finally reached 20-year-old Jordan Staal, who lifted the prize to the heavens and let out a scream so primal it could be heard all the way to Thunder Bay.

We all carry snapshots from that night, I'm sure. Mine begin with the cadre of Penguins fans banging on the glass during the postgame celebration. That was before a strangely normal, cocktail-party type conversation with Brooks Orpik's father amid the on-ice mayhem, and a poignant moment with then-general manager Ray Shero.

I asked Shero what came to mind when the buzzer sounded.

“I thought of everyone who helped me get here, quite honestly,” he said.

Mario Lemieux said of the players, “It's going to be the best summer of their lives.”

Crosby, asked how it felt to raise the Cup, said, “It was actually a lot heavier than I thought it was.”

Little did anyone know that the crowns on their heads would lie even heavier. The Penguins won four playoff series that year. They have won four in the five years since.

So in some ways this hardly feels like a day to celebrate — not with heads rolling like bowling balls at Penguins headquarters.

Could it be that, what felt like a beginning, was actually the end?

It's too early to make that proclamation, of course, but it's also true that Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are now closer to 30 than 20. What felt like the makings of a dynasty now feels almost like a cautionary tale.

But cautionary of what?

Are there lessons to be gleaned?

Maybe the Penguins' fall merely reinforced a slew of sports cliches (which usually are true) …

• Nothing is guaranteed. Sports history is littered with great teams that failed to fulfill their potential — and these Penguins are beginning to profile more like the 1990s Atlanta Braves than the 1980s Edmonton Oilers.

• You need luck to win championships. Anybody remember Kris Letang's deflected goal in overtime of Game 3 against Washington, the one that might have kept the Penguins from falling into a three-games-to-none hole?

• Time passes quickly. You'll never find an athlete who says his career dragged. It's gone in a flash.

As for what precisely happened over these past five years, there is no easy answer. Lots of things happened. At various times, the Penguins were undone by bad coaching, bone-headed plays, questionable roster building, thin drafts, cap issues, leadership vacuums, poor goaltending and stars wilting at the biggest moments.

It's been a team effort.

Then there are two significant factors that rarely see the light of day, because, you know, the Penguins were supposed to cruise to multiple Cup wins. These are not intended to excuse Bylsma, who easily could have been fired after the Philly flop and should have been after the Boston blowout.

They are just true:

1. Injuries. The Penguins were robbed of a significant chunk of their allotted time with the “Big Three.” Between 2010-11 and 2011-12 — Staal's final two seasons here — Crosby, Malkin and Staal combined to miss 207 regular-season games. Malkin and Crosby missed the '11 playoffs, when the Penguins seemed poised to roll through the East.

2. Good opponents. A terribly inconvenient fact, I know, but there really were TWO teams on the ice in every series.

In 2010, Montreal had just upset a powerful Capitals team that rang up 121 points (third-most in the past 30 years) and 318 goals (most this millennium). In 2011, Tampa Bay was better than the banged-up Penguins. In 2012, the 103-point Flyers had many of the same players who'd been to the Cup Final in 2010.

Last year's Bruins you know about. This year's Rangers were not only pretty good but also galvanized by a tragedy within the team. It's easy to dismiss them because of what has transpired in the Final, but it's worth noting that they did not trail the mighty Los Angeles Kings for a single second of regulation time in the first two games.

Sometimes, that's just the way it goes.

And then it's gone.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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