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Penguins' season ends without a championship

by Brian Compton
PITTSBURGH -- Mellon Arena has provided the fans in the Steel City with plenty of great moments since it opened its doors for NHL hockey in 1967.
The Pittsburgh Penguins couldn't give their fans another one on Wednesday night, as they suffered a 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in Game 7 of this Eastern Conference Semifinal.
The loss not only ended Pittsburgh's season, it also ended the team's run in this building -- which, ironically, began with a 2-1 loss to Montreal on Oct. 11, 1967. The Pens, who were denied a chance for their third straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final, will move into the state-of-the-art Consol Energy Center this October.
Pittsburgh was basically doomed from the start in this one, as it fell behind when Brian Gionta scored his first of two goals just 32 seconds into the game. By the 5:14 mark of the second period, the Pens found themselves trailing 4-0 -- and Marc-Andre Fleury, who played a huge role in Pittsburgh's march to a championship a year ago, found himself on the bench.
The Pens tried to rally, as Chris Kunitz and Jordan Staal scored before the end of the second to cut the deficit in half. But Pittsburgh couldn't get any closer. A season with so much promise, a team with so much talent, is done.
"It's not easy," Staal said. "It's not something that tastes right. It doesn't feel good."
The Penguins certainly said all the right things on Wednesday morning, including how they couldn't afford another poor start. But Fleury fought the puck in the opening period, starting with Gionta's knucklepuck deflection that managed to squeak through the goaltender's pads. Right from the drop of the puck, the Pens didn't seem ready.
Unfortunately for them, the Canadiens were.
"The start killed us," veteran forward Bill Guerin said. "I don't really think it was the X's and O's type things. I don't know if it was nerves. I don't know what it was. It was just unfortunate for us that it went that way. Obviously, you have to give Montreal a lot of credit. They played some amazing hockey this series. Their defensive play was incredible. Their team play was as good as I've seen. They deserve a lot of the credit."
They certainly do, as the Habs -- who finished the regular season tied for the fewest amount of points of any playoff team (88) since the adoption of the shootout -- are on one heck of a run. In the past two rounds, they've sent Alex Ovechkin and now Sidney Crosby home for the summer. With their season on the line in Games 6 and 7 of this series, they wasted little time showing they wanted no part of going home.
Sure, Jaroslav Halak was solid again in a 37-save performance. But the Penguins clearly didn't do enough early to match Montreal's will. They didn't play with the type of desperation that's needed in an elimination game.
By the time they realized what was at stake, it was too late. They fired 18 shots on goal in the third period, but Halak -- an early favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy -- stopped them all.
"(Trailing) 4-0 to a team that smothers you when you get in their end, it's very difficult," Staal said. "I thought we had a pretty good effort to come back. Obviously, that power-play goal was a great play by them. There's not much you can do."
All the Pens can do now is wonder how this happened; how a team with Crosby, Staal, Fleury and Evgeni Malkin is done after Round 2.
Maybe this team simply ran out of gas. Let's not forget, the Penguins had played well into June in each of the past two seasons. Their opponent in those two final rounds -- the Detroit Red Wings -- is also done for the summer.
"I'm not going to sit here and complain about playing Stanley Cup Finals and Olympic gold-medal games," said Crosby, the Penguins' captain and hero of Canada's gold-medal win at the Vancouver Games in February. "That's a good problem to have and you have to deal with it. There are times when it is a grind and you have to deal with it. By no means is that any excuse or any reason for anything. I would never blame that on anything. Those are great things to be a part of and you have to find a way to still produce and be successful." 
"The fans ... this was probably the best Mellon Arena that I can remember. I thought we were going to give them a really, really good story halfway through that game. I know our guys did, too." -- Dan Bylsma

Staal agreed.
"You can make that excuse if you want, but I think as a team, we felt pretty fresh," Staal said. "We weren't thinking about that, for sure. We definitely were gunning for another run."
The run came to a screeching halt on Wednesday night. Pens coach Dan Bylsma briefly addressed his dejected team afterwards -- but after such a heartbreaking loss, there really wasn't much to say.
"There's not a lot of great words that you can offer ... and not a lot of great words they'll remember," Bylsma said. "This is not the way we thought this game would turn out. We're extremely disappointed. But win, lose or draw, you look at the character of your team and how they play.
"But (this) group of guys ... I want them on my team. I'd rather have the Pittsburgh Penguins group than any other group. I know our guys were out there on the ice giving everything they had. The fans ... this was probably the best Mellon Arena that I can remember. I thought we were going to give them a really, really good story halfway through that game. I know our guys did, too."
This October, a new story begins across the street. It's hard to imagine Opening Night not creating better memories than the last ones the fans will have of Mellon Arena.
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL

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