Pieces fail to come together for Penguins in season-ending loss
BOSTON — Kids, they grow old so fast.
Four years after their coming-of-age Stanley Cup victory, the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins were swept out of the Eastern Conference final.
Bruins 1, Penguins 0 — that was that from TD Garden on Friday night after Adam McQuaid scored 5:01 into the third period. Boston claimed the best-of-seven series, 4-0.
Favored, the Penguins never led.
Dangerous, they scored only two goals — none on 15 power play chances.
Experienced, they made mistakes.
The one that players mentioned most after this loss — center Evgeni Malkin called it “big” — was losing two games at home to open the series, including a 6-1 drubbing in Game 2.
“We lost this series at home,” Malkin said.
Added defenseman Brooks Orpik, the longest-tenured Penguin: “It was just Game 2. That will be tough to get over.”
No Penguins squad had been swept in a playoff series since 1979.
Star-studded, these Penguins are star-crossed — infamous for their lows, the four straight playoff losses to lower-seeded opponents, as they are famous for their highs, the back-to-back Final appearances that preceded those defeats.
General manager Ray Shero had stopped talking about his club in the final days of this series.
So there was no vote of confidence for coach Dan Bylsma, who is 20-21 in the playoffs since the Penguins won the Cup on June 12, 2009.
There was no defending the honor of franchise cornerstone centers Crosby and Malkin, without a point in the East final, their team without a signature postseason victory since that magical night at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena four years ago.
The missing pieces to another Cup puzzle were not acquired by Shero three months ago.
Winger Brenden Morrow provided grit and guts, but he was often a fourth-liner.
Defenseman Douglas Murray defended the scoring areas and bolstered the penalty kill, but he was one of a handful of back-end players who could not handle the heavier workload that eventually fell on the shoulders of Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik.
Forward Jussi Jokinen won some faceoffs, but he also watched seven games with other players who were scratched.
As for winger Jarome Iginla, the diamond of those deemed-dandy moves by Shero …
He never was Crosby's winger, and he could not fit playing the opposite side with Malkin. A scorer of more than 500 goals, a quiet warrior respected by competitors, Iginla finished this postseason with four goals and 12 points.
He was no top-six winger for the Penguins, and the Bruins — the squad to which he blocked a trade — are playing for the Cup that has eluded Iginla for each of his 16 seasons.
He has not played for the Cup since 2004, and at age 35 this may have been his best chance.
“I wasn't very good in this series,” Iginla said. “These close games, you want to find a way to contribute on that extra goal and stuff.”
Malkin, 26, and Crosby, 25, may have missed out on the last best chance of their primes, too.
Wayne Gretzky won his last title at 27. Mario Lemieux was 26. Bobby Orr was 24.
Shero has no choice but to take on tough decisions with his roster, with contracts committed to 18 players at a combined salary-cap hit of about $54 million for next season. The cap is set at $64.3 million.
Cup-winning wingers Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Craig Adams — staples on the first, third and fourth lines, and the penalty kill — are unrestricted free agents. Iginla, Morrow and Murray also can test the market.
Crosby is locked up for the next 12 seasons, but Malkin, a former MVP of the regular and postseason and a two-time scoring champion, is entering the last year of his contract. Joining him, notably, are Letang, Orpik and Kunitz.
Marc-Andre Fleury, the franchise leader in wins, shutouts and Cup-clinching saves in a Game 7, played only in one game after losing his starting gig to veteran Tomas Vokoun by the fifth contest of Round 1.
A new era of Penguins hockey is coming to Pittsburgh.
It will be led by Crosby and Malkin, the tandem ownership has instructed Shero to keep together at any cost.
“That was the expectation,” Crosby said of regaining the Cup. “To come up this short does not sit well with anyone.”
Adulthood is often about responding to disappointment.