Penguins players disappointed in ouster, proud of accomplishments
About 36 hours after his season ended without hoisting the Stanley Cup for the first time, Matt Murray had some of the emotions of despair and disappointment you might expect.
For Murray, though, they were overshadowed by a different emotion.
"After a few days (had passed), the main feeling I have is just pride," the Penguins goalie said Wednesday. "Pride in being part of this team, pride in what we accomplished."
For the first time in 37 months, the final formal gathering for the Penguins was not a celebratory parade but instead a more somber and modest meeting at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.
Locker stalls included bunched-up sets of sticks and the familiar large equipment bag. Each player also had a box in the shape of an elegant turquoise cylinder, packaged neatly, adorned with the NHL logo and personalized with his full name.
It appeared to be a lovely parting gift from the league — not that any of the Penguins' players wouldn't have traded it for the Stanley Cup.
"It's tough," forward Bryan Rust said. "For a lot of us, we haven't been through this before."
Murray and Rust were joined by Conor Sheary, Jake Guentzel, Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney as young Penguins players who never had an NHL season end without a parade. Add Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Justin Schultz and Chad Ruhwedel — as well as coach Mike Sullivan — as veterans who never had a season for the Penguins end without the Cup.
As such, the feeling in the Penguins' locker room at their practice facility had an unfamiliar eeriness.
"It's something we haven't felt for a while," captain Sidney Crosby said, "(but that) doesn't make it any easier, I can tell you that.
"You want to be playing still. But you have to evaluate everything and turn the page at some point and get ready for next year."
Players and team staff exchanged hugs — after eight months of near-daily interactions, they might not see each other again until September. And that assumes they all are back. When accounting for unrestricted and restricted free agents, or any trades general manager Jim Rutherford almost certainly will make between now and the opening of 2018-19 training camp, that is unlikely.
"This feels a lot different," Kuhnhackl said "The season just ended way too early for our likes, but that's just hockey.
"There's a lot of big expectations for this organization (because) the majority of guys are coming back next year."
While a cloud of lingering disappointment hung over the locker room, the burden was palpably eased by what the Penguins had done the prior two seasons. In addition to Murray, players as varied as defenseman Brian Dumoulin and forward Patric Hornqvist — as well as Sullivan — all invoked another word.
"I'm really proud of the group of players we've assembled here," Sullivan said. "We have quality people, great players. I know how much they care and how much want to win, so we feel good about that and I'm proud of how much they were able to accomplish.
"That doesn't make me feel any better that we fell short this year. But what it does do for me is it makes me that much hungrier to do it again – and I can't wait for Day 1 of training camp to get back at it with this group."
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.