There will be no fourth Stanley Cup added to the trophy case of the Pittsburgh Penguins -- at least not this season.
The four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final put an end to the Penguins' dream of another championship, which would have been the club's second in the past five seasons. Instead, 2009 remains the final glory year for a club that anticipated a run of excellence after defeating the Detroit Red Wings in that year's Stanley Cup Final.
Since then, the Penguins have won three playoff series, losing four others in a string of disappointments.
None of those ousters, however, will likely sting as much as this one. The Penguins were the top seed in the East and carved through their first two opponents with relative ease, winning six of seven games before meeting the Bruins.
"Our team is a team that considers itself a team capable of winning a Stanley Cup, put together to win a Stanley Cup," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "That's our expectation from Day One. That's how we build through the season. We certainly feel that we were a team that was capable of winning a Stanley Cup."
Pittsburgh's high-octane offense was firing on all cylinders, scoring a postseason-high 47 goals in the first two rounds. Their power play, laden with world-class offensive players, was lethal through the first 11 games, scoring 13 goals. Even its goaltending had been shored up by the performance of backup Tomas Vokoun, who played brilliantly during his seven-game run after relieving Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the first round.
Then, in the blink of an eye, the dream was over, smothered by the impenetrable defense-first game plan of the fourth-seeded Bruins.
Pittsburgh scored two goals in the series, one of five teams in the history of the NHL to experience scoring futility at that level in a postseason series.
So what exactly happened to turn Pittsburgh's sweet Stanley Cup dreams into an unshakeable nightmare in the span of a week?
Here are five of the ingredients in this recipe for disaster:
1. Cold front
Pittsburgh's offensive stars all went cold at exactly the same time. Any good team can survive one player in a funk. A great team, like the Penguins, can likely weather the storm if two players are in a funk. But not even the greatest of all teams could survive the total eclipse experienced by Pittsburgh's brightest lights.
The five forwards who led Pittsburgh in playoff scoring -- Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla, Pascal Dupuis and James Neal -- entered the Eastern Conference Final with 28 goals and 64 points in 11 games. They exited the conference final with a solitary assist by Dupuis to their credit.
It was, quite simply, a deep freeze like nothing the NHL has seen before.
"You try to fight, you try to get through to the net and get rebounds and sometimes they come to you and sometimes they don't," Crosby said. "Obviously, you score two goals as a team in four games, and personally to go without any points, it doesn't sit very well."
2. Target practice
Boston goalie Tuukka Rask pitched a shutout in Game 1, the first of his playoff career. From there, he immediately seemed to take residence in the heads of the Pittsburgh shooters.
Repeatedly throughout this series, the Penguins didn't even register a shot on net when the rare high-quality scoring opportunities came to be. Too often, it appeared the Penguins forwards were trying to be too fine with their shots, targeting the top half of the net and regularly firing over the crossbar or just wide.
In the four games, the Penguins were credited with 64 shot attempts that missed the net, an average of 16 per game. In a series that saw 14 goals total, those are far too many opportunities to be left on the table.
3. Fight the power
Pittsburgh has too many weapons to go 0-for-a series on the power play, even if that series is four games.
At times during the first two rounds, Pittsburgh's power play seemed unstoppable as a variety of looks and quick puck movement befuddled the penalty killers of the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators. Boston, however, never looked confused. The Bruins denied the Penguins a smooth entry at the attacking blue line then collapsed quickly into the shooting lanes when Pittsburgh used its quick puck-movement game to try to change the point of attack.
When shots did get through on the power play, the Boston defenders denied Pittsburgh a place around the crease, eliminating all but the occasional deflection or rebound chance.
"Maybe because our power play didn't score a goal," Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz said when asked what the difference in the series was. "That was the key to the other series, that we went in and capitalized on key moments. We didn't do that here."
4. Trail position
Pittsburgh never got the lead in this series. That is not how the Penguins want to play hockey. They can chase games because of their talent but prefer not to do so.
When the Penguins are on their game, they can keep things even or get a lead then bring their offensive pressure to bear as the opposing team opens up a bit to get back into the contest. As often as not, Pittsburgh has shown the ability to score goals in bunches.
In this series, Boston never deviated from its defense-first game plan because it never had to. To make matters worse, the Penguins gave up a goal in the opening minute of two of the four losses, giving the Bruins an immediate cushion and comfort level.
Pittsburgh is the first team since the 2009 Columbus Blue Jackets to never hold a lead in a Stanley Cup Playoff series. But Columbus was an eight seed making its first playoff appearance against the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings, the defending Stanley Cup champion.
"When you're playing from behind, not only a game but in the series, there's no room for error," Pittsburgh forward James Neal said. "When you're battling from behind the whole series, it wears on you. You just keep going back to we just couldn't find that one goal or one spark to get us going."
5. Great expectations
Once Penguins general manager Ray Shero went all-in nearing the NHL Trade Deadline, acquiring forwards Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Jussi Jokinen and defenseman Douglas Murray, the pressure was squarely on his team. Suddenly, it was Stanley Cup or bust.
Early in the first-round series against New York, Pittsburgh looked tight. But the Islanders weren't good enough to take advantage of the tentativeness the Penguins exhibited at times.
Boston, on the other hand, has not only won a Stanley Cup but has won seven of eight playoff series over the past three years. So the Bruins ratcheted up the pressure when they saw the Penguins questioning themselves.
In the end, the team expected to advance in this series had no answers and went home in stunning fashion, prematurely entering their offseason with more questions than answers.
"No question, it's disappointing," Bylsma said. "With the expectations that we have on ourselves, no question you're going to look at this as a missed opportunity."
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