OTTAWA (CP) - Their playoffs are over this year, but the Pittsburgh Penguins expect to be back at the NHL's big dance for years to come.
"This team is going to be reckoned with for a long time," veteran right-winger Mark Recchi said following Pittsburgh's 3-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference opening-round series Thursday night. "I think this is going to make us a better hockey club in the future. If we keep progressing like this, we're going to be contending for Stanley Cups for a long time."
Although, Recchi, 39, is an unrestricted free agent and might not be around to see it, the future looks bright for 19-year-old NHL scoring champ Sidney Crosby and his supporting cast despite and abrupt end to their season.
The ride lasted just eight days, the experience gained by their young and talented lineup was invaluable to the Penguins' development since as many as 16 players had never appeared in an NHL playoff game before this year.
While the Senators now await their next opponent, the Penguins will reflect on an otherwise successful season in which they accumulated 105 points and made a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
"It's going to take some time," Crosby said of the Penguins' development. "We had a good regular season.
"It was obviously a tough finish, but I think we exceeded a lot of expectations in the regular season and we'll have to learn from this.
"You have to stay focused. You have to be consistent. Unfortunately, we learned that the hard way. I think looking back over the series, I think we wish that maybe we didn't take two games to get our feet wet."
After becoming the youngest player to lead the NHL in scoring with 120 points during the regular season, Crosby enjoyed a solid playoff showing with five points in five games despite being frequently shadowed by the Senators' top defensive duo of Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov.
"I think Sidney Crosby will probably get a lot of chance in his career to win a championship," Senators coach Bryan Murray said. "He's that kind of player.
"He'll take of lot of guys along with him. (Marc-Andre) Fleury was good, (Jordan) Staal . . . they've got a bunch of kids that are going to be not a team you're going to want to play in the future."
In addition to Crosby, rookie Staal, 18, with three goals in the series, and the 22-year-old Fleury, who, apart from a shaky performance in Game 1 was otherwise strong in goal in his first post-season appearance, fared well.
Others, like 20-year-old Russian talent Evgeni Malkin, struggled. He had four assists, but looked worn down and didn't seem to adjust well to the physical play.
"I haven't really thought about it yet, but I'm sure a lot of these guys can take some stuff out of this playoff and it's something I can use next year," Staal said. "Every single battle every single shift, every part of the play, is a huge play.
"You don't really realize it until you're in it. Every single play is a huge play and you've got to be ready for it."
With the world championship coming up later this month in Moscow, Crosby and Fleury could be extended offers by Hockey to join the Canadian team as early as Friday, although the loss was too fresh for either to think about it.
With questions over their ownership and arena situation laid to rest after speculation the team might be sold and moved for next year, the Penguins can now focus on their on-ice product.
Along with Recchi, the future of 40-year-old Gary Roberts is also up in the air.
In his brief time Roberts showed the young Penguins the ropes, tying for second on the team in playoff scoring with four points and was a thorn in the Senators' side throughout the series.
"I came here with the intention of trying to help this team go as far as we could and be a contributor," Roberts said. "I enjoyed my time here.
"At this point, I'm just going to take some time and reflect on my year and get the body healed and get ready for next year."