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Inside Scoop: Locker Cleanout Day 2019

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens' locker cleanout day on Thursday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex...

* INJURIES

Every team in the postseason has players dealing with bumps and bruises. A couple of Pens divulged specific injuries: Jared McCann was playing with a separated AC joint in his shoulder, while Brian Dumoulin had a torn PCL in his knee.

* WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

The 2019 World Championship is scheduled for May 10-26 in Slovakia. One player who will not be going is Sidney Crosby, who declined an invitation to play for Team Canada.

"I'm just going to try to make the most of the rest," he said. "No significant injuries or things like that, but I think as you get older there's kinds of things that nag you a little bit. So just going to try to take care of those."

* CULLEN TALKS RETIREMENT

One question on a lot of people's minds is whether Matt Cullen will retire after 1,516 regular-season games and 132 postseason games across 21 NHL seasons. When asked what he is planning to do, Cullen didn't have an answer just yet.

"It's a big decision for me and for my family," he said. "I know in the whole scheme of things it's not a big deal, but for us it's a big deal, so we'll just give it its due time and put a little thought and time into it and figure something out here before too long."

If this season does end up being his last, the 42-year-old forward will forever be appreciative of how healthy he felt. 

"I'm really thankful that I was able to enjoy playing here down the stretch because I felt as good as I felt in a long time, which is great," he said. "I think as you get older you just hope that you can feel good enough to allow yourself to play and be effective, and I was really happy with how my body felt. I was able to enjoy it and try to help the team and make a positive impact."

* PENS TALK EMOTIONS FOLLOWING SWEEP

The standard in this locker room is so high. With the core this group has and being just two years removed from back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, anything short of reaching their ultimate goal is a disappointment. As Kris Letang said, the minimum expectation is to make the playoffs.

But to be swept by the New York Islanders in the First Round of the playoffs is a new level of disappointment for this particular group, considering that a number of players remain from those 2016 and '17 rosters.

"We expect a lot of this team," Letang said. "It's not the way we want to go out." 

"We didn't expect it to end like this or go out in four games," Phil Kessel agreed.

It's the quickest exit Crosby has dealt with in his career, and the first time in four years his team hasn't advanced past the First Round after the New York Rangers eliminated the Pens in five games back in 2015.

"It's disappointing to have this long of an offseason. It's been a while since we've had this much time to really digest the year and have it in your mind," Crosby said. "It's going to be a long one; It's going to be a long summer and be lots of time to look back and just think about this one. But at some point you got to move on and get ready for the next one, so that's what I'll try to do."

While Matt Murray has spent the last couple days thinking about how the series went, he's trying to look at the positives.

"I know there aren't many, but I think as a team and as individuals we're going to grow from this experience and going through something like this," Murray said. "I know it's tough right now, we're all still really disappointed. But I think in the future we'll be better off for it."

* LETANG TAKES OWNERSHIP

Letang has taken a lot of criticism for some of his decision-making in the series, and he took ownership for that when talking with reporters Thursday. 

"Sometimes I make mistakes. I wish I could take those back," he said. "At the end of the day I wish I could have done something else at different times."

And at the end of the day, as Sullivan said, they win as a team and lose as a team. And this summer, Letang said he is going to evaluate how he can be better as an individual to help the team win.

"I'm going to go back and try to improve my game by training and getting better in certain areas," he said. "That's how I approach every summer. Try to fix little things."

Letang isn't the only player who knows he has more to give. Bryan Rust called his season "wildly inconsistent," while Patric Hornqvist said he simply didn't play well.

"I had that slump there for a long time, it's hard to get out of those when you're getting those (chances) and it feels like you're doing the right thing and the puck doesn't go your way," Hornqvist said. "You get frustrated and that's probably the worst thing you can do. I learned a lot from this season. We didn't have the result that we wanted as a team and for myself too, I didn't play as a good as I can. Regroup and go."

* PLAYERS DISCUSS WHAT WENT WRONG

Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan discussed the Pens' early exit during their media availability, and you can find their thoughts on what went wrong here

But when it comes to the players' perspectives, the two biggest themes were this:

1) They weren't consistent enough throughout the course of the season

2) There's a fine line between winning and losing

When it comes to the former, Jake Guentzel had this to say:

"In March we played well, and then just to see how it went in the playoffs, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth. Throughout the year I think we had too many ups and downs and weren't consistent and obviously it showed in the playoffs. (To limit those ups and downs), we just have to be consistent. We can't be careless with the puck and we just have to defend hard. If you defend hard it's going to create offense and going to lead to that, and I think that's the biggest thing."

When it comes to the latter, Kessel emphasized just how hard it is to win.

"You think this is easy to win here? It's not," he said. "There's 30 other teams. It's competitive. You look throughout the league, every team is good, there's great players throughout the league. It's not as easy as the outside world projects to win games and have success. We've had it and I think there's a lot of good players in here. There's no reason to say that it can't continue."

He pointed to Game 1, a 4-3 overtime loss, as a prime example of that.

"We win the overtime game, the series changes," he said. "In the outside world they'll say oh, they got swept. Obviously it wasn't good enough. But winning and losing in hockey, there's small little things that happen throughout the game. This year was disappointing. The year before we lost in the second round to Washington, who won (the Cup). The two previous years we won the Cup. There's always a chance to win. I'm sure the team will improve and we'll see what happens over the summer."

The players declined to get into specifics about what kinds of changes need to be made, and understandably so. As Crosby said, that's out of their control.

"I think that definitely when you get swept and lose the way we did, there's always going to be questions," he said. "You try to evaluate things, but as players you have to evaluate your own game and figure out what you need to do better. I think as far as looking from a management side or the coaches' side, it's up to them to decide those things."

Crosby does, however, have confidence that this team can find a way to be on the right side of the line when it comes to winning. 

"I definitely believe we can win," he said. "You look at the way the series went, if we're able to get a goal here or there maybe it changes the whole dynamic and we're not talking about this. It's a pretty fine line, but I definitely believe we can do that."

"I think you have a core group of guys that are pretty elite hockey players and I think Jim has always done a good job of surrounding them with the right kind of talent and right kind of players," Cullen added. "And for whatever reason this year it didn't work. I think it's a little bit early, honestly, to push the panic button on this group. I think you look at them last year and they were just a whisker away from moving on to the conference finals, and for whatever reason this year we didn't have it come playoff time. But there's a lot of pretty special players and I think it's early to push the panic button on this group."

* BJUGSTAD BECOMES A DAD

It's been one big whirlwind for Nick Bjugstad since joining the Pens, starting with his down to-the-wire debut and ending with his wife Jackie going into labor with their first child, a daughter named Layla, the night of Game 4 on Tuesday. We got the chance to ask him about it today.

"It was crazy," he said. "Obviously it was a disappointment in the game, but I had to get out of the locker room pretty quickly. My wife was induced before the game so I knew what was going on. It wasn't like I found out during or after (the game). It was just crazy, it ended up happening that next morning so yeah, it was the coolest moment of my life. She's happy and she is healthy and Mom is healthy as well."

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