Pens will pay price for another failure


PITTSBURGH -- This was once the dressing room of champions.

Now the Pittsburgh Penguins' room is just another locker room full of guys simply not good enough to get it done.

You can talk expectations until you are blue in the face -- New York Rangers blue as it were -- but the simple fact of the matter is that these Pittsburgh Penguins, in spite of their star power and pedigree, simply aren't very good when it matters most.

And when you think about it, this has been true for a long time.

In the world of hockey, memories are short and repeated failures are generally dealt with swiftly and harshly. The Penguins' 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers Tuesday night was the fifth straight playoff loss to a lower seeded team since Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup run in 2009. And this series against the Rangers marked the second time in four years the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead.

After three dominating performances against the Rangers that evoked memories of the team's run to back-to-back Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, the Penguins scored three goals. One per game. They never held a lead after Game 4.

It was hard to tell whether it was shock or resignation that permeated the air in Pittsburgh's locker room.

When the media piled in, captain Sidney Crosby was already at his locker stall. As he always is.

In seconds he was buried -- as he always is -- by a phalanx of cameras and recorders and reporters asking him questions for which, in many ways, he had no answers.

It's hard to reconcile the Crosby that we have seen score a gold medal winner in 2010 and earn the reputation as the game's best player with the player who looked so ordinary, out of sync this spring.

He insisted Tuesday that he was healthy, disproving the theory that some mystery ailment was at the heart of him scoring just once in 13 postseason games.

On Tuesday when they needed someone to step forward and reverse the tide, Crosby had two shots on goal. He and winger Chris Kunitz were late back-checking on the first Rangers goal by fourth-liner Brian Boyle, who has actually out-scored Crosby by a goal thus far in the postseason.

"Obviously I would have liked to score more. I'd love to tear it up every series, but [that's] not always the case. It doesn't make it any easier I'll tell you that," Crosby said.

"It's tough losing as it is but when you're not able to contribute as much as you'd like, it's even tougher."

He, like many players in the Penguins locker room, was asked about the potential for change in the wake of this collapse.

"I don't know. The game just finished. I think there's always questions and, when expectations are high and you don't win, I think that's normal," Crosby said.

Game 7 held significant meaning for both teams in terms of offseason change and, in the case of the Penguins, their legacy. And while it is a cliché, the Rangers' best players were their best on Tuesday.

After the Boyle goal, New York got a power-play goal from Brad Richards (who is now 7-0 in Game 7s in his career) after a nice feed from longtime Tampa teammate Martin St. Louis, who of course became an emotional touch point for the Rangers after losing his mother shortly before Game 5. And Henrik Lundqvist, winning his fifth straight Game 7, was sensational in turning aside 35 of 36 shots.

He faced 26 shots over the final two periods and was a rock in denying James Neal, Evgeni Malkin and Jussi Jokinen multiple times.

The Penguins worked hard, did many things right and pushed the pace. But in the end, no hero stepped forward to push them past the Rangers.

And now the question is how steep is the price for that failure?

A year ago, general manager Ray Shero held firm in the wake of a four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins during which the Pens managed to score just twice. Dan Bylsma returned for his fifth full season as head coach. Netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was not jettisoned. Neither was Kris Letang, who was given a monster contract extension.

This time it's hard to imagine such patience will be shown.

Fair or not, it's hard to imagine any more patience being shown to Bylsma. Not after his team failed to close out a Rangers team that appeared to be teetering on the edge after Game 4 when they managed just 15 shots on net.

Instead of delivering the knockout blow that the great teams always deliver, the Penguins started slow in each of the three potential elimination games. While they were much more engaged early in Game 7, the fact is they never made the Rangers pay.

Bylsma was asked what he thought the price would be for this year's disappointment and the ones that preceded it the previous four springs.

"I'm 20 minutes post battling for Game 7 and right to the bitter end. I haven't contemplated price that's going to be or what that's going to be or anything towards the future yet," Bylsma said.

"When you win a Stanley Cup, you win Game 7s and move on. ... We had this opportunity and we didn't [win] and that's obviously difficult to deal with right now."

Later a reporter asked about whether Bylsma might take a moment to reflect on this evening "if the inevitable" were to transpire, and then realizing the slip reworded it to "if an unfortunate situation happens at some point."

Even Bylsma cracked a grin at that one, the notion that this could well be his final night in this building as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

If a coaching change is made, our guess is that Bylsma will be unemployed a very short period of time what with coaching positions still waiting to be filled in Washington, Vancouver, Florida and Carolina.

And if anyone thinks simply installing Barry Trotz or John Stevens or anyone else behind the bench will guarantee a return to past glory with this core, they are sadly mistaken.

It's hard to imagine there won't be significant changes made to a roster that has gone from dynastic to ordinary in just five years.

Although Fleury couldn't be faulted on this night, his future with the team will also be in question.

As will that of Neal, who played better in the latter stages of Game 7 and finished with an assist and four shots on goal, but still managed only two goals in 13 games. He also took a mindless holding penalty to negate a Penguins power play in the first period with the team trailing 1-0.

"We didn't score at the big moments in big games and that falls on us and our top players. We just didn't get it done. That's the bottom line," Neal said.

"It's disappointing. We had a great team in here and a great opportunity to do good things and we just came up short; it's a missed opportunity."

And there's the rub.

If this was just one missed opportunity, it would be one thing. But when so many of these scenes have played out in this locker room over the past five years, it's more than that; it is an identity.

And here's the thing: Had the Penguins found a way to win Tuesday night, they'd be heading to their second straight final four appearance and fourth conference final berth in seven seasons; all of a sudden the team's identity would have been viewed through a different prism.

But since that didn't happen, a steep price will be paid, and it won't be just for losing this game to the New York Rangers but for the culture that has grown up around this talented team that has found ways to lose games like this every spring.