The Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated from the Eastern Conference finals after a 1-0 loss to the Boston Bruins at TD Arena Friday night. Pittsburgh was swept by the Bruins in the best of seven series, marking the first time the franchise has been swept in a postseason match-up since 1979--ironically enough against Boston.
With Friday night's loss, the Penguins have now failed to even reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the fourth straight season since playing in back-to-back Finals in '08 and '09 and bringing Lord Stanley home to Pittsburgh in the summer of 2009 after a stunning Game 7 victory over the Red Wings.
That celebration on center ice in Detroit's Joe Louis arena seemed like just the beginning for the Penguins. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and goaltender Marc Andre Fleury still years away from their primes, at least a couple more Cups seemed inevitable for the young core.
However, the Penguins lost in Round 2 against Montreal the following season. The 2010/2011 season was marred by injuries, as Crosby, Malkin and a host of others sat by helpless and watched Pittsburgh blow a 3-1 series lead to the Lightning in the opening round.
A season ago, the Penguins may have been victims of circumstance, losing out on the Eastern Conference's top seed by two points to the Rangers, their Atlantic Division rivals, and having to settle for the fourth seed and a date with another, more hated division rival, the Flyers, in the first round. Pittsburgh fell behind, 3-0 in the series, before losing in six games.
Despite the shortened season due to a lockout, there was no doubt that it was "Cup or Bust" for the Penguins in 2012/2013.
Pittsburgh finished the regular season with the second most points in the NHL, and even though the team boasted a 15 game winning-streak earlier in the year, gm Ray Shero still went out and acquired a boat-load of talent at the NHL trade deadline, including future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla from the Calgary Flames.
Things got off to a rocky start against the upstart Islanders in Round 1--including the departure of Fleury from in front of the net in favor of back-up Tomas Vokoun--but the Pens survived a grueling six-game series and then dominated the Ottawa Senators in Round 2, winning in five games.
Unfortunately, Pittsburgh proved to be no match for a Bruins team that won the Cup just two seasons ago, as Boston out-scored the Penguins, 12-2, in the four games.
In many circles, a six year run that sees a team win a Stanley Cup, reach another Cup Final and then make it to a conference final would probably be enough. However, in Pittsburgh, with the two best players in the world and one of the most passionate fan bases in the NHL, it seems like a rather underwhelming run.
As you might expect, changes are probably in the works, starting with Head Coach Dan Bylsma, who, if I had to bet my salary, probably won't be back next year.
NHL coaches are more disposable than in any other sport, and even though there are so many weird intangibles that go into a hockey game, Bylsma is taking the brunt of the blame for not achieving more with such a talented roster.
Another interesting decision will involve Fleury. After helping the Pens steal the Cup in '09, Fleury has struggled in the playoffs in recent years--including this postseason when he never started another game after being replaced by Vokoun against New York. The fact that Bylsma stayed with Vokoun for the remainder of the postseason could speak volumes for Fleury's future in Pittsburgh.
It will be an interesting offseason for the Penguins.