PITTSBURGH (AP) -The Pittsburgh Penguins accomplished so much more than might have been expected yet so much less than they wanted.
They lost star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for three months and captain Sidney Crosby for two with ankle injuries, yet had another 100-point season, won their division for the first time since 1997 and the Eastern Conference for the first time since 1992.
All this from a team that, in 2006, was finishing up a four-year run in which it had NHL's worst overall record.
"We were the worst team in the league and two years later we planned to go to Game 7 in the Stanley Cup final," defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "It's no consolation now but, looking back, it's pretty good."
Good season. Very good, with a 47-27-8 record. For most of the playoffs, a great one, with only two losses in their first 14 games. But then the Penguins ran up against experienced, composed Presidents' Trophy winner Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals and lost in six games.
The first two games were forgettable, twin shutout losses in Detroit. The final four games were among the best in recent Stanley Cup history, all of them tight and tense one-goal games with a succession of dramatic finishes.
The Penguins became only the second team to rally and win a Stanley Cup elimination game in which it trailed in the final minute, beating Detroit 4-3 in a three-overtime Game 5 that was one of the greatest games in franchise history.
Game 6 was nearly better. The Penguins fell behind 2-0 and 3-1 before Marian Hossa scored with 87 seconds to go to give themselves a chance. They nearly pulled off a miracle finish as Crosby's last-second shot barely missed the net.
Maybe the Penguins, whose core players are mostly in their 20s, weren't ready yet to be champions, especially facing a team as deep as Detroit. But they showed they could be champions very soon.
"The strides we made over the last three years are pretty incredible," co-owner Mario Lemieux said.
Whenever the Penguins met adversity during the season, coach Michel Therrien made sure they found an answer.
Fleury goes down? Ty Conklin steps in to go 18-8-5 and No. 3 goalie Dany Sabourin (remember him?) wins 10 games.
Crosby gets hurt? Malkin was a player possessed during No. 87's long recovery, with 20 goals and 26 assists during Crosby's 28-game absence. Malkin was so good for so long during his 106-point season, he pushed fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin of Washington for the scoring title won last season by Crosby.
The Penguins started slowly, going 8-11-2, then turned their season around by rallying from a two-goal deficit to beat Ottawa in overtime on Thanksgiving night. They never slowed down until the Red Wings held them to 10 goals in six games of the finals.
Fleury was a major reason for that, blossoming into an elite goalie during the playoffs despite accidentally pushing in Henrik Zetterberg's Cup-clinching goal in Game 6. He ran off a 19-game home ice winning streak, not losing there for more than six months.
"He's been our best player (in the playoffs) and gave us a chance to win," Lemieux said.
Hossa, the All-Star forward picked up from Atlanta by general manager Ray Shero in the biggest deal on trading deadline day Feb. 26, also gave Crosby the elite linemate he has long lacked. Hossa was excellent in the playoffs with 26 points and a team-high 12 goals. Sergei Gonchar was one of the NHL's best defensemen all season.
Even with a new arena about to rise across the street from 47-year-old Mellon Arena and a full season worth of sellouts, Lemieux can't open his checkbook wide enough to keep this team together. With so many Penguins becoming free agents, the NHL salary cap won't permit retaining all of them.
Among those who could leave are Hossa, Ryan Malone (27 goals, plus six in the payoffs), defenseman Brooks Orpik, tough guys Gary Roberts and Georges Laraque, Adam Hall, Jarkko Ruutu, Conklin and defenseman Mark Eaton, who was injured much of the season.
The Penguins also need to do new deals soon for Malkin, a finalist for the NHL MVP award who is expected to command the largest contract in club history, Fleury and 19-year-old Jordan Staal. The Malkin and Fleury contracts could be bank breaking-deals.
"It's going to be a challenge for Ray this year to keep our team together," Lemieux said. "With the salary cap, you have to make choices ... and some tough decisions, which I assume we're going to face in the future with the young, talented team we have in Pittsburgh. It's going to be difficult to make it all work."
Therrien, given strong praise by Cup-winning coach Mike Babcock after the series ended, also has only one season left on his contract.
"Hopefully we can keep it together, but it's a tough thing," Crosby said.
That means a summer of change during the short offseason - training camp starts in only three months - even if the goal stays the same.
"It's one team, all together," Malkin said, referring to the Penguins' strong cohesiveness. "I'm pretty sure we learned a lot from this season so, hopefully, we can go just one more step next year."