From superlative to stunned in about 156 minutes -- that was the story of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
After nearly two full seasons of playing without at least one of their stars because of injury, the Penguins were at full strength and considered one of the favorites to reach the Stanley Cup Final. In what would become a theme throughout their first-round series with the Philadelphia Flyers, the Penguins charged to a lead in Game 1, up 3-0 at the first intermission.
Then it all fell apart.
Pittsburgh's goal prevention had been suspect in the final weeks of the season, but the swiftness of the Penguins' collapse was incredible. The Flyers rallied for a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 1, then crushed the Penguins, 8-5 and 8-4, in the next two contests before eventually finishing off a defense-optional series in six games.
A shocking early exit -- Pittsburgh's second straight first-round defeat -- prompted questions at all levels of what once looked like a burgeoning dynasty. General manager Ray Shero set out to make changes this summer, and he positioned the franchise to try to add the top two players on the free-agent market.
His push to land Zach Parise and Ryan Suter did not work out, however, as the duo signed with the Minnesota Wild. Pittsburgh reportedly was one of the teams pursuing Shane Doan, but the Coyotes' captain opted to remain in Phoenix.
"We like our team. Adding a guy like Parise and/or Suter would have been fantastic," Shero told reporters last month. "But we've got two First-Team All-Stars coming back at forward with [Evgeni] Malkin and [James] Neal, and adding Sidney Crosby -- that's a pretty good lineup already."
Shero made one franchise-altering trade this offseason. He dealt center Jordan Staal, one of the integral reasons for Pittsburgh's return to elite status, to the Carolina Hurricanes for center Brandon Sutter and two defense prospects, Derrick Pouliot (the No. 8 pick in the 2012 draft) and Brian Dumoulin.
Shero also sent defenseman Zbynek Michalek back to the Coyotes. If the Penguins don't make any more moves before the season starts, Sutter will replace Staal, and one of the team's young defense prospects will likely take Michalek's place in the lineup.
"We like our defense the way it is," Shero said. "If we have the ability or the chance to upgrade, certainly we'll do that. A lot of teams are looking for defensemen now and they're difficult to find. We'll go with what we have at this point."
The other personnel changes, to this point, have been in minor roles. Shero traded for the rights to unrestricted free agent goaltender Tomas Vokoun, then signed him to a two-year contract.
The Penguins added Tanner Glass on a two-year contract. Glass had 246 hits for the Winnipeg Jets and will be counted on for physical play on the fourth line. Dustin Jeffrey and Eric Tangradi have been on the verge of securing a more permanent role with the Penguins, and there is a chance each could do so this season.
"You see the possibility of seeing younger players in the organization get a chance to play there as well, whether it's Eric Tangradi in a top-six role or [2010 first-round pick] Beau Bennett getting a chance to play there in exhibition and training camp, or Tyler Kennedy," coach Dan Bylsma told the team's website. "We feel good about the possibilities of guys like Kennedy supplementing that top-six role."
There is still loads of talent in Pittsburgh. Crosby and Malkin are the League's best 1-2 punch at center, provided they can both stay healthy for the first time in three years. Neal had a breakout season, and Kris Letang has developed into one of the NHL's top defensemen.
The expectation to contend for the Stanley Cup remains the same. How the Penguins respond to the humbling experience of the 2012 playoffs will determine if Shero needs to make more major alterations.
"One thing we do have that we haven't had in a while is cap space," Shero said. "That's something we can bank on moving forward, and we'll see where that takes us."
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