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Penguins face uncertainty after another early exit

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins seemed to be cruising on their way to a second consecutive Eastern Conference Final less than a week ago. After an exit in the Eastern Conference Second Round, they're now faced with uncertainty.

The Penguins responded to a 3-2 overtime loss in Game 1 of their second-round series against the New York Rangers with three wins earned in convincing fashion. Pittsburgh outscored the Rangers by a combined score of 9-2 on its way to a 3-1 series lead.

Pittsburgh lost to a lower-seeded team for the fifth consecutive season since winning a Stanley Cup in 2009. But a 2-1 loss in Game 7 on Tuesday could have greater implications than simply the end of another disappointing season.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he had not considered what will result from the loss.

"Our ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and we haven't done that in five seasons," Bylsma said. "I'm 20 minutes post-battling for a Game 7 right to the bitter end. I haven't contemplated the price of what it's going to be or anything toward the future yet."

Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported Wednesday that Penguins ownership was meeting to discuss the future of Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero, who signed Bylsma to a two-year contract extension last summer. The report said ownership favors firing Bylsma and was discussing Shero's fate.

The series underwent a drastic change in momentum during New York's 5-1 victory in Game 5. That was followed by two more anemic offensive performances by the Penguins, leading to their season-ending loss Tuesday at Consol Energy Center.

Throughout the series, Pittsburgh's power play was lethargic and its inability to score more than one goal in 20 chances was a primary reason behind the Penguins' lack of production. That, combined with the offensive struggles of NHL scoring champion Sidney Crosby (he was held without a point in five of the seven games), led to a lifeless attack.

"The game just finished," Crosby said. "I think there's always questions, and when expectations are high and you don't win, I think that's normal. So, I'm sure there will be a lot of questions."

A lack of stability throughout the lineup was evident during Pittsburgh's time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Forwards Evgeni Malkin, Lee Stempniak and Brian Gibbons each played alongside Crosby and forward Chris Kunitz on the top line during the series, causing disruption through the remaining lines.

The Penguins were aided by secondary scoring from forwards Jussi Jokinen and Brandon Sutter, who finished the postseason with a combined 17 points and 12 goals, but they were not able to rely as heavily on key contributors such as Crosby and forward James Neal, who finished with two goals and four points in 13 games.

"We're supposed to score in big moments in big games," Neal said. "That falls on us and our top players, and we just didn't get it done. That's the bottom line."

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