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Starkey: Penguins disintegrate in Game 7

| Thursday, May 13, 2010

A moving scene materialized after the Penguins' season-ending, 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night.

Once the handshake line cleared, the Penguins gathered near the runway to their dressing room and saluted the crowd. Team captain Sidney Crosby raised his stick highest of all, then tapped it on the ice as fans in that corner cheered the defeated Stanley Cup champs.

To me, that showed Crosby's class, after a series in which he was constantly frustrated and completely silenced. It also was a neat way to send off the 49-year-old Igloo, which had played host to so many memorable games (and many not-so-memorable ones).

But none of that, of course, could erase the disaster that had evolved over the previous two-plus hours.

Let's be blunt: The Penguins choked. They hadn't looked so tight since Game 1 of the Final two years ago in Detroit, as they stunningly fell behind, 4-0, early in the second period.

You knew losing was a possibility. It always is in Game 7. But did anyone think the Penguins would fall apart like the Buffalo Bills in a Super Bowl?

Coach Dan Bylsma admitted that of all the scenarios he had concocted, this wasn't one. I asked Canadiens winger Mike Cammalleri — who scored his 75th goal of the series (or was it his 76th?) and somehow emerged from seven games without a mark on his face — if he was surprised to see the Penguins fall apart.

"I don't think that team falls apart," Cammalleri said.

What game was he watching?

Marc-Andre Fleury couldn't even catch the puck by the end of a calamitous first period, no doubt delighting the sickos who root for him to fail.

Evgeni Malkin made a five-foot drop pass to nobody on a horrific early power play. It was a pass he would repeat often.

Crosby was called for a questionable penalty 10 seconds in — boarding Josh Gorges — which allowed Montreal to grab the lead. Crosby also mangled a 2-on-1 with Max Talbot and would finish the series with one measly goal, proving he is mortal, after all.

Sergei Gonchar played as if he were heavily sedated. His whiff on a clearing attempt led to Montreal's second goal, and I'm not sure I can adequately describe his actions on Travis Moen's shorthanded marker at 5:14 of the second period, the one that chased Fleury.

Gonchar froze as Moen skated past him. In a split second, he went from man to mannequin. It was like something out of the show "Flash Forward," when all but a few people in the world pass out for two minutes, 17 seconds. Only Gonchar never woke up.

Back on Montreal's second goal, Brooks Orpik was needlessly trying to rough up Max Lapierre behind the net — and therefore of no help when Dominic Moore beat Fleury.

Bill Guerin looked 110 years old.

Chris Kunitz got intercepted more than Jake Delhomme.

Pascal Dupuis still couldn't score.

The list went on.

Goals by Kunitz and Jordan Staal — easily the Penguins' best player — made things interesting late in the second. The crowd went bonkers when Malkin's father, Vladimir, led the cheers on the video screen during a timeout.

I don't know if I've ever heard the old barn so loud.

The Penguins had a power play to start the third, and you just knew they would complete the comeback if they scored. They had a great chance, too, but series MVP Jaroslav Halak somehow snuffed Crosby's rebound attempt.

A goal there, and the roof blows off.

Halak wasn't done. He made the save of the series, on Malkin, on the Penguins' next power play. Kris Letang then missed an open net, and the Penguins were done.

Afterward, banged-up Montreal defenseman Hall Gill said he felt for his old mates but rejoiced in the win. Could he use some rest?

"Nah, let's play tomorrow," Gill said.

There is no tomorrow for the Penguins. It was a horrible loss, to be sure. Maybe one of the biggest big-game meltdowns in Pittsburgh sports history. But at least it ended with a touch of class.

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