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Penguins' early playoff exit still hasn't sunk in

| Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 9:00 p.m.

The bags were packed, but the sticks, skates and sweaters weren't the only baggage the Penguins shouldered into the offseason. Their emotions were heavy, too.

“We're all disappointed with the way things ended,” center Sidney Crosby said Tuesday afternoon as the Penguins prepared for a summer vacation that began sooner than they'd expected. Two days had passed since the Flyers had eliminated them from the playoffs, but the frustration lingered from losing the first-round series in six games.

“We expected better,” Crosby said. “Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do about it now. We've got to learn from this and then be better for it.”

After clearing out their Consol Energy Center dressing room, the Penguins said they still couldn't easily explain how they fell so quickly. This was the third straight playoff series loss for the Penguins, and the second consecutive season with a first-round exit.

“I think we realized it's tough to win,” Crosby said. “Just because you've won before doesn't mean you can show up in the first round of the playoffs and walk through it. You have to learn some lessons like that some times. We got a tough one this year.”

Family matters

Left wing Steve Sullivan, one of the few unrestricted free agents on the roster, is unsure what the future holds. But Sullivan, who turns 38 in July, said he greatly enjoyed his first season with the Penguins. After producing 48 points in 79 games, the Penguins would love to have him back.

“I'll have to meet with Dan (Bylsma) and Ray (Shero) and see what their plans are,” Sullivan said. “And then I'll discuss it with my family. It's not a decision for just myself anymore.”

Niskanen wants to stay

Defenseman Matt Niskanen badly wants to return to the Penguins next season. He is a restricted free agent this summer. After having difficulty adapting to the Penguins' system following a trade from Dallas in February 2011, Niskanen thrived in his first full season in Bylsma's system.

“I have fallen in love with this organization,” he said. “I play my best here. I hope I'm back. It's not entirely up to me, but hopefully everything works out so that I'm back next year.”

Malkin to Worlds

Evgeni Malkin agreed to join Russia in the World Championships next month, and Zbynek Michalek will play for the Czech Republic. However, Marc-Andre Fleury declined an invitation from Canada, as did Crosby, who wants “a healthy summer.”

“Typically, I'd be there in a second,” said Crosby, who dismissed Canadian critics. “But this isn't a normal situation. And this isn't me trying to hide away from the world championships. I love playing for Team Canada. I don't think anyone can question that.”

The injury situation

A hip injury has bothered Kris Letang for a few years, the defenseman said, but “this year it's been bothering me a little more.” His doctor has prescribed rest and has not yet recommended surgery, Letang said, but that could be an option. “It's not a major injury,” he said. “It's something that can bother someone who likes to skate like I do — from a pain standpoint.”

It was a concussion that kept defenseman Paul Martin from playing the final games of the playoff series. Martin was injured in Game 3 when Philadelphia's Brayden Schenn hit him in the first period. Playing hurt against the Flyers were Sullivan, Niskanen (shoulder) and right wing James Neal (thumb). Sullivan (foot) was hurt April 3 in Boston and needed a pain-killing injection before each playoff game.

Josh Yohe contributed. Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5666 or

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