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Pittsburgh Penguins at crossroads after stunning 2013 playoff collapse

Evgeni Malkin (71) and the Penguins may have suffered the worst playoff loss in team history. (Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)Evgeni Malkin (71) and the Penguins suffered what may be the worst defeat in team history. (Getty Images)

By Allan Muir

Remember the 2009 Stanley Cup? It was supposed to be a coming-out party for Pittsburgh's coterie of young superstars, the first in what surely would be a dynastic run of championships that would define the NHL's new decade.

Just four years later, that seven-game victory over the Detroit Red Wings is starting to look like lightning in a bottle. A series of fortuitous events that culminated in an unlikely title for a team whose hypotheticals always look better than their reality.

Since then, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been a good team that aspires to greatness, but always finds it resides somewhere out of their grasp. A group whose vision always seems to be focused on a prize off in the distance instead of the obstacle directly in front of them.

The Penguins are good. Just not good enough.

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Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review aptly described the Pens as the game's "paper champions" four years running. Could any slight be more devastating? More condescending? More accurate? Look at that roster, loaded with MVPs, scoring champs, All-Stars and first-rounders, bolstered at the trade deadline by a quartet of savvy veterans. Fantasy hockey rosters are never this stacked.

But something was missing that couldn't be seen on paper.

More often than not, the Cup is won by a team that doesn't simply reach its potential, but exceeds it, digging deep at critical moments to find wells of strength or courage or stamina it didn't know existed.

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These Penguins have consistently settled for less. Not because they don't know where to dig, but because it probably never occurred to them they needed to. This is a team that continues to prize skill over will. Was that ever more apparent than last night? Watching Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin trying to stickhandle their way through Boston's smothering defense only to be rejected again and again offered the perfect allegory to their failings. Right to the end, the Penguins thought talent would win out. The Bruins were a team that thought team would win out.

Four games later, we know which one was right.

Will this go down as the worst loss in franchise history? Hard to imagine one that was more crushing or more convincing. In fact, it may go down as the worst performance ever by a top seed. Two goals! Two lousy goals on 139 shots over 14 periods of play. A power play that went 0-for-15. A defense that was too easily scrambled, a forward corps that couldn't shoot straight and couldn't be convinced to simply drive the net. A team whose best players were Matt Cooke and Paul Martin, and whose leaders, Crosby and Malkin, both wore the golden sombrero. No goals, no assists, no points.

Awful.

And so the question is: What happens now?

GM Ray Shero has some interesting decisions ahead, starting with his coach.

I'm on the record as saying Dan Bylsma should have addressed his team's lack of composure in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference Final, but that failing shouldn't cost him his hob. But after watching last night, I'm not so sure. The Pens were a more competitive team in Games 3 and 4, tighter defensively, better on the draw, and spent more time with the puck. But even when facing elimination, Bylsma crafted no ambitious counterattack, showed little creativity with his lines, and failed to curb the urges of Crosby and Malkin to try to save the season all by themselves.

Dan Bylsma is a good coach, but he lacked the imagination to win even a single game in this series. If someone has to pay the price for this debacle, it's probably him.

But that's probably the least of Shero's worries. The roster will be the real challenge. According to capgeek.com, he has 18 players under contract for next season at a cap hit of about $54 million. That leaves him about $10 million to either parse out among free agents Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Craig Adams, or on new pieces that will spice up the recipe. His prize trade deadline acquisitions -- Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray -- will be cut loose.

Malkin is entering the last year of his contract, as are Chris Kunitz, Brooks Orpik and Norris finalist Kris Letang. Any of them could be signed to extensions this summer, but it's impossible that all will be.

And then there's Marc-Andre Fleury, the goaltender for that 2009 Cup winner who was relegated to the bench for all but a few minutes after playing his way out of the starting gig in Round 1. This is the second year in a row he's melted down in the postseason. It's hard to imagine the 28-year-old being given a third chance.

He was part of a bright future not so long ago, but failed to live up to the opportunities he was presented.

You can say that about most of this team.

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