PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero will spend the next weeks trying to determine how, in his words, "188 days in the regular season went down and kind of unraveled for us in 10 days."
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Pittsburgh's players already believe they know why a Stanley Cup Playoffs favorite fell apart during their six-game Eastern Conference Quarterfinals loss to the Flyers, allowing 30 goals and not resembling the team that mounted a late-season 11-game winning streak.
Simply, they couldn't match the Flyers in any critical area: goaltending, star-power contributions, the penalty kill, the power play, responsible play in the defensive end, physicality or the intangibles. It wasn't one area that doomed the Penguins, it was every area.
Perhaps that's why, two days removed from a 5-1 loss in Game 5 in Philadelphia, both Shero and coach Dan Bylsma still had a "how-did-that-happen" look while addressing reporters Tuesday. This was the their second consecutive first-round playoff exit, but no one associated with the Penguins saw this one coming – not this early, not this way.
"We weren't at our best and I'll take full responsibility," said Bylsma, whose team has won 100 games the last two seasons, but only five in the playoffs.
Shero did that himself, saying, "I'm responsible for the outcome of the playoffs. I'm responsible for the performance of the hockey team. … To a man, we did not do the job. We underperformed. We have to figure out the reason why and that starts with me."
The defensive problems that surfaced early in the series – the Penguins yielded a remarkable 16 goals in losing Games 2 and 3 – actually began when they gave up 41 goals during the final 11 games of the regular season and never went away, Shero said.
The series began ominously, with the Penguins squandering a 3-0 lead in Game 1 and losing 4-3 in overtime, and never got much better despite their series-extending wins in Games 4 and 5.
"It just seemed like some bad things happened here and there and you lose that first game and the next game you score a lot of goals and it gets everybody thinking of trying to do more," Fleury said, suggesting the Penguins got away from their more disciplined play of the regular season. "Everything happens quick."
The high-end talent the Penguins rely upon – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Fleury – all were outplayed by their Philadelphia counterparts. Only center Jordan Staal raised his play. By the end of the series, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was calling star Claude Giroux "the best player in the world," a pointed jab at both Crosby and Malkin.
The Flyers also elevated their game from the regular season, when they won four of six from the Penguins. The Penguins did not. And since lifting the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Penguins – despite their premium talent – have not advanced past the conference semifinals.
"We're all disappointed with the way things ended. We all expected much better but, unfortunately, we've got to learn from this and be better for it," Crosby said. "Just because you won before doesn’t mean you can show up for the first round of the playoffs and walk through it. You have to learn some lessons like that sometimes, we got a tough one and I think we'll be better for it."
As the Penguins went through their season-ending physicals and packed up their equipment bags Tuesday, Crosby and Malkin found themselves going opposite ways.
While Crosby wants to rest up and start conditioning work for next season after missing 101 regular-season games to concussion-related issues over the last two seasons, Malkin will play for Russia during the World Championships.
Not that Malkin had any idea two weeks ago that the Penguins' season would be done by now. He sat out the 2011 playoffs with a left knee injury and was anticipating a 2009-like run now that he and Crosby were back in the postseason together.
"I'm responsible for the outcome of the playoffs. I'm responsible for the performance of the hockey team. … To a man, we did not do the job. We underperformed. We have to figure out the reason why and that starts with me."
-- Penguins GM Ray Shero
"Of course, this is disappointing," Malkin said.
Despite the highly visible deficiencies – the Flyers power play converted at a 52-percent rate– Malkin doesn't believe the Penguins need to overhaul a Bylsma-designed system that is designed to get the puck into the offensive zone as quickly and as often as possible.
"I think it works, but sometimes (we took) bad penalties and they did a great job on the power
play," Malkin said. "They scored lots of goals. So, I don't know. It's tough to say. We won the Stanley Cup with the same system, so I think it works."
The Penguins, whose 108 regular-season points were second in the Eastern Conference to the Rangers' 109, now have four-plus months to figure out why it didn't.
There were a few injuries – defenseman Paul Martin (concussion-like symptoms), James Neal (thumb), Letang (hip), Steve Sullivan (foot) – but Shero isn't aware of any player who currently is set for surgery.
Crosby emphasized there were no leadership or locker room issues and said the players "take personally" any suggestions there were.
"That being said, we did lose in the first round. That's our responsibility and we have to take that criticism, whether or not we feel that was an issue," he said. "People are more than welcome to criticize that and if they're not happy, we're not happy either. Everyone's trying to look for reasons."
Shero among them.
"This group of players wanted to win desperately. They cared. They tried. They worked. Our execution was not good," Shero said. "A lot of that is due to Philadelphia; give them credit. (But) it's not the way we were built to play."