The loss to the Bruins was the most difficult reality to process in a long time. Every playoff run that falls short hurts, but this was below the belt and seemingly out of nowhere.
Following Ray Shero's gold star performance at the trade deadline that earned him the title General Manager of the Year, many of us saw the Stanley Cup in our crystal balls. The thought of anything less felt impossible with just a glance at the talent and leadership beaming from the roster. This Penguins team was just too good to be beaten. I remember multiple friends (all Capitals fans) telling me after the Jarome Iginla trade that the Pens may have just sealed the Cup. I was hesitant to readily agree, but deep down, the confidence was bubbling. It didn't matter that expectations were impossibly high. This team could do the impossible.
And they did. They allowed themselves to get swept.
Games 1 and 2 were, for the most part, unpleasant to watch, but a 0-2 series deficit wasn't an impossible hole to climb out of, especially if the Pens shaped up and played like they did in March. I resigned to the truth when the Pens lost a heartbreaking Game 3 in double overtime. I remember throughout the game seeing people say that it would just take one goal for the dam to burst. But with every save, Tuukka Rask burned any chance of hope left. The opportunities were there, the puck was finding the post too many times to count, but it was clear that someone up there didn't want the Pens advancing.
From such a great high came a low no amount of hair pulling or alcohol could numb. A wasted opportunity no different than a sucker punch.
The laundry list of things that went wrong mirrored that of a team not worthy to make the playoffs: offense only putting up two goals in four games, the power play going dry, and impatience in the forecheck. To me, it all came back to one thing.
A talented team doesn't always translate into a winning team.
It's not Shero's fault. He did exactly what any GM with his skill set would do and that's to provide his coach with winning options. Shero traded for veterans, players with resumes and leadership qualities that go on for miles, who wanted to cap off their careers with a Stanley Cup (which added another incentive for the rest of the Pens). Keeping in mind the lockout-shortened season, we could only hope these hockey-smart veterans picked up Bylsma's style quickly and maybe add some cool, mature heads. It's a risk that speaks to Shero's trust in these player's natural hockey tendencies and how they would fit on the Pens. The potential was there, but time was not.
Were the Pens better off staying as they were? It's possible, especially considering the time the Pens didn't have to develop chemistry. I see a lot of validity in those who claimed the Pens got slower when they picked up Iginla and Morrow (and yes, Douglas Murray). But hey, at least those guys brought a veteran presence, right?
The question of leadership is a major one that isn't getting enough discussion time (that I've noticed, at least). The Pens dressing room was packed with leadership, but who was actually leading the team in the playoffs? You can argue that it's Sidney Crosby's job to lead and it certainly is, but as the stakes get higher, that responsibility has to trickle down. Every player has to be a leader in some way; being a follower simply means you're a step behind someone else. A team must lead together which is synonymous with playing together.
Bringing leaders on board won't necessarily breed leadership. In fact, it could have the opposite effect.
The Pens have no excuse; they aren't an inexperienced team. These are guys who have been there and back again so I'm done heading down the "Pens needed a Bill Guerin-like player" path. If the Pens haven't created leaders from within, especially through two consecutive Stanley Cup runs, then there are bigger issues at hand.
The Pens do have leaders. They just need to play in a way that reflects the experience they have earned. Easier said than done when your best players are triple-teamed and everyone else is battling injuries. What teams ultimately need, and what the Pens lacked, is the seam that holds everything together even if a series is crumbling away. A common language.
"It" was missing.
"It" is what every championship team in every sport has. That special something that is impossible to bottle.
A look at the 2008-09 season and you could see "it" within the Pens: a team fresh off a heartbreaking Cup loss with an okay start to the season that eventually turned for the worst. After a coaching change and a few trades, this team locks into a deliberate panic mode to clinch a playoff spot, constantly pushed forward by a young core of super talents ready to win their first Cup. And they never looked back.
That young core so desperate to win a Cup is very key here and a huge driving force in 2009. They say winning a Cup once makes you hungrier to win it again, but it doesn't make the path any easier. It wasn't easy for Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Jordan Staal, and Marc-Andre Fleury over four years ago. Replicating that desire with what's left of the core is even harder, especially when pundits sing your praises all year round.
With that said, the Pens could use some young blood in the lineup on a more consistent basis. Despite the team's shortcomings, Beau Bennett was a bright spot in the playoffs and has hopefully seen his last AHL game. The same goes for Simon Despres whose speedy development could be key depending on what happens with Letang in the upcoming weeks. It would be sinful to waste the potential of either player and I think this season made it clear that the Pens' best success will come by trusting what we have and developing the talent already present.
No matter what happens, if the Pens want to win a Cup, they have to get over the fact that they're a talented bunch with expectations through the roof every time the season begins. I think playing with the heart of a rookie and the mind of a veteran will go a long way for this group.
Not to rehash an old phrase, but if there's a team that's capable of making it happen, it's this one.