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Remember this?  It's been far too long for a team this talented.
Remember this? It’s been far too long for a team this talented.

Another strong year in the regular season, at least from the start of the season to the Olympic break, resulted in a disappointing exit in the playoffs for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Last year’s sweep at the hands of the Bruins was embarrassing.  The Penguins never seemed to be in any of the games, aside from maybe the double overtime game 3.  All parties concerned, especially head coach Dan Bylsma and his job tenure, hoped that scenario would not be repeated in the 2014 playoffs.  Unfortunately, it did.  The Pens blew a 3-1 lead to a pretty non-descript (aside from Henrik Lundqvist) Ranger team.

Aside from the actual game-to-game discussion points, there are also some macro-discussion points about the state of the franchise and the legacies of three key players: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marc-Andre Fleury.  Where does this team go from here?

In 2008, the Penguins made the Stanley Cup finals and allowed the youngsters to cut their teeth against a strong Red Wings team.  That team made the Cup finals on the back of extremely strong play by Marc-Andre Fleury.  In 2009, the “grizzled” Penguins returned to the Cup finals against the same Red Wings and this time hoisted the cherished Cup, thanks to an all-time highlight save by Fleury on Nick Lidstrom as time expired in Game 7.

This was the start of the next great dynasty.  Keep Grant Street open in mid-June every year for victory parades, Pittsburgh.  But then….the dynasty that seemed so sure never developed further.

The 2010 playoffs ended at the hands of the Canadiens and the pads of goalie Jaroslav Halak.  Sergei Gonchar’s impression of a matador against Brian Gionta and the relentless play of Mike Cammalleri bounced the Penguins in the second round.  It’s OK, we all said, they’re just tired from all that playoff hockey of the last two years.  We’ll be back.

And then the Winter Classic happened in January 2011.  Crosby got his melon dinged up and put him in flux for over a year.  A few weeks later, Malkin ripped his knee apart.  Without their top two offensive players, it was up to Jordan Staal to carry the offensive burden against the Tampa Bay Lightning.  It was a valiant effort, but one that was destined to be futile even if they got past the Lightning, and the Penguins were eliminated in the first round.

Now what was written to be a bright future was turning cloudy, especially when Crosby’s concussion issues stretched into next season.  When he returned in, seemingly, top form for the 2012 playoffs, there was a ray of hope.  That was quickly extinguished when the collective group of the Penguins lost their minds and composure against the Flyers.  Fleury looked as if he just strapped on the pads for the first time and Bylsma appeared to coach with all the seasoning of a man pulled out of the stands and placed behind the bench.

The 2013 playoffs are still a sore spot for many, but suffice it to say that Fleury was not engendering a lot of fuzzy feelings heading into these playoffs after last year’s debacle.

Winning a Cup is the pinnacle of every hockey player’s career; however, when you are Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, one Cup is not enough to define your legacy.  There have been plenty of Cup-winning teams in the NHL in recent years that got hot at the right time and made their one run at glory.  Yes, I’m looking at you 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes and 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning.  For the Penguins (as a team) and Crosby/Malkin/Fleury (specifically) to be considered elite and all-timers, they have to win multiple Cups.

The clock is ticking on that possibility.  For the 2014-15 season, Crosby will be 27, Malkin will be 28, and Fleury will be playing his age-30 season.  Malkin and Crosby are still in the primes of their careers, but both have some significant injury history that has taken some tread off the tire.  Fleury will be in the last year of his contract that pays him $5M/year.  If Fleury has a less-than-spectacular 2015 playoff season, what would you do with a then-31-year-old who is a free agent?  There’s no one in the pipeline waiting to take his place, all apologies to Jeff Zatkoff.

Maybe there wouldn’t be as much external tension if Chicago didn’t already have two Cups with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and seemingly in contention every year.  If Chicago were to win one either this year or next, they would be the closest thing to a dynasty that there is in the salary cap-era NHL.  That is the legacy that was written in the stars for the Penguins.

If they don’t want to be a footnote in NHL history, Crosby and company need to rectify their mental issues of self-control and wilting under pressure tout suite.  It’s not too late to start collecting Cups.

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