High expectations weigh on Pens


PITTSBURGH -- No matter how you define success, how you manage expectations or how you rationalize the past, this stands as a spring of reckoning for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That's what happens when you have the world's best player in Sidney Crosby and a deep, talented supporting cast. Each spring is a championship waiting to happen.

That the Penguins have not advanced to the Stanley Cup finals since winning the championship in 2009 reinforces just how monumental the task is to be the last team standing when the annual 16-team grudge match is over.

Even if we accept that it's nigh on impossible to win multiple championships in a short period of time, it doesn't lessen the expectations that the Penguins should have done just that. And further, when they fail, as they have in different manners over the past four years, the pressure to address those failures likewise escalates exponentially.

Fair to say that this spring could represent a critical mass if those lofty expectations are once again at loggerheads with disappointing results.

"With this team, realistically you have a chance to win," winger James Neal told ESPN.com Tuesday on the eve of the team's first-round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. "You've got the players to win, you've got the organization, the coaching, you've got everything that could potentially be a Stanley Cup-winning team and they've showed it and they've done it."

Neal acknowledged that for other teams the discussion at this time of year might be about how, if everything goes right, they've got a chance to win.

"But here it's different," said Neal, who was acquired by the Penguins from Dallas before the 2011 trade deadline. "Everyone expects you to win it. You want to win it, you want to do your best. I think us getting healthy at the right time this year and everything kind of falling into place before [the] playoffs is a good start for us."

So does the sting of failing to meet these lofty playoff expectations burn more deeply for the players who wear the jersey?

"It does. Yeah. It does," Neal said. "It's been like that ever since I got here, and it's disappointing. Especially the kinds of ways we've gone out in the past years makes it even tougher. But at the same time, we've grown as a team and grown as players, and each year is different."

The Penguins have failed to make good on their significant Stanley Cup expectations in a variety of manners. In 2010, fatigue inevitably set in when they were upset by Montreal in the second round after failing to close out a 3-2 series lead. In 2011, they blew a 3-1 series lead to Tampa after losing both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the playoffs.

The following year, the Penguins were embarrassed by Philadelphia in the first round, falling behind 3-0 in the series and eventually bowing out in six games as netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was a disaster and the team collectively lost its composure against its cross-state rival.

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