For a while there, everything was going along to plan. The Pittsburgh Penguins rattled off twelve straight wins in a stretch from mid-November to mid-December. They were being profiled on HBO's "24/7" documentary season and it was all smiles in the lockeroom. Through the first half of the season Sidney Crosby tallied 66 points in 41 games, on pace to have the best offensive season in the league since Mario Lemieux fifteen years ago.
At that point, a first round exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs would seem to be about the furthest possibility for this buzzsaw of a team. They were hitting on all cylinders and one of their best players, forward Jordan Staal, was inching closer to making his season debut.
Then, as soon as it started, the 2010-11 Penguins season was doomed. Crosby collided with Washington's David Steckel at the Winter Classic and took a jarring hit. Then four nights later Tampa's Victor Hedman smashed Crosby's head into the boards and it would be the last night Crosby would play for the season.
A month later, former playoff MVP Evgeni Malkin went into the corner on a routine looking play, but then took a tumble and Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers fell on his leg in an awkward position. Just like that, Malkin's ACL was torn, his MCL damaged and that would be curtains on his season.
The Pens wouldn't have a choice, they'd be forced to battle on. They traded for Alex Kovalev and James Neal in an attempt to add offensive punch. They worked doggedly to maintain their positioning, and through the regular season they held on to the fourth seed in the playoffs, narrowly missing out on the division title to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Then came the playoff matchup with Tampa Bay. Tampa presents an interesting paradox- they possess some of the top skill guys in the league with Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. But they also employ a defensive 1-3-1 setup that chokes out the neutral zone and added some pieces of their own in defenseman Eric Brewer and goaltender Dwayne Roloson through mid-season trades.
That matchup would end up finishing off the Penguins. Roloson at age 41, pitched several gems in net. St. Louis led the charge offensively with a series high four goals and eight points. It would be too much for Pittsburgh to overcome. Though they battled valiantly, the skill they needed to generate goals just wasn't there to be found, it was already long knocked out of the lineup.
It's always disappointing to be eliminated from the playoffs, but neither the Pens nor their fans should be ashamed. They battled to the very end, and though they wouldn't come out on top there's no shame to be found. Marc-Andre Fleury gave them a chance, the defense tried to smother the attack and the Pens work-pail, lunch box forwards did all they could to wear Tampa down and try to put pucks past Roloson.
The disappointment will turn to the long off-season. The Penguins have nine forwards set to become unrestricted free agents. Several of them, like Maxime Talbot, Pascal Dupuis and Craig Adams were instrumental parts of the 2009 team that won the Stanley Cup. Others, like Mike Rupp, Eric Godard and Chris Conner have done much for the organization over the years. Former star Alexei Kovalev got one last chance to prove himself, but seems to have been robbed of his fastball by age and a bad knee that's slowed the once dynamic skater.
Turnover in hockey is a fact of life. Several players have put on the black and gold for the final time, between the salary cap, salary expectations and young players knocking on the door, it's simply a function the life cycle of an NHL team. To those players who won't be back, all the fans should give a stick tap for their blood, sweat and pain over all the years.
There's always next season, and with the core of the team all under contract, the future is bright for the Penguins. At this point, that seems like a long time away from this moment in time. Because when the book on 2010-11 season is closed, there's nothing to do but wonder what could have been for a team with heart and talent that was robbed by injuries for a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.