PITTSBURGH, Pa. – A road jersey was hung neatly in every locker stall. Brand new sticks and a fully loaded travel bag also were ready for each player when the Pittsburgh Penguins arrived at Mellon Arena.
It’s a normal mid-May scene for a team that’s appeared in 10 playoff series in three seasons. There was only one difference: The Penguins were packing for the summer, rather than for the next round of the playoffs.
The neatly bound books at each locker? Not a scouting report for the Eastern Conference final, but a guide to off-season conditioning.
That’s what made saying goodbye unusually difficult, even for the Penguins players who will return next season. For most, it was one last visit Friday to their Mellon Arena dressing room before they relocate across the street to the Consol Energy Center next season.
“It’s weird to be done now, already,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “It’s tough.”
Already missing is Mario Lemieux’s locker nameplate, which remained above his empty stall even after he retired during the 2005-06 season. Some players, including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Fleury, don’t know another NHL home locker-room.
“It’s kind of mixed emotions, but certainly all the firsts I’ve have in the NHL, I tie in with Mellon,” Crosby said. “There’s a part of me that will be sad but, at the same time, I’m looking forward to the new rink as well.”
For now, putting this season and the seven-game loss to Montreal in the Eastern Conference semifinals behind them will take a little longer. The Penguins no longer are the Stanley Cup champions, they’re former champions.
They appeared to have a clear path to the conference finals after Washington, New Jersey and Buffalo lost in the opening round, but they were tripped up by the same overachieving team that eliminated the top-seeded Capitals in the first round.
No, getting over a loss like this takes more than two days.
“This is a group of guys who could’ve been in that picture again this year,” coach Dan Bylsma said, pointing to a photo of last year’s Stanley Cup celebration. “It’s disappointing because of those expectations. You don’t get those opportunities every year.”
While Crosby dismissed fatigue as a factor for the Penguins’ early elimination, Malkin is convinced it played a role. The Penguins played 303 games and 10 of a possible 12 playoff rounds the last three seasons, a demanding pace even for a relatively young team. Five players also took part in the Olympics.
“Yeah, it’s a long season and we see Detroit in the same situation. I think they’re tired, too, and (they) lost in the second round,” Malkin said of the Red Wings, who met Pittsburgh in the last two finals. “We tried to win, but it’s hard to win every year.”
Malkin dismissed his own season as “bad,” although his drop-off from 113 points in 2008-09 to 77 points partly resulted from him missing 15 games to injury or illness.
“Next year I’m going to be better, of course,” Malkin said. “This year is not good for me.”
He wasn’t alone. To win a championship, teams often must get career years from multiple players, but Bylsma acknowledged the Penguins didn’t have that.
“We think Geno is a 114-point guy,” he said. “He wasn’t that for us this year. Marc-Andre Fleury—he didn’t have a strong season and he didn’t have a strong playoffs.”
The Penguins’ roster turnover could be greater than usual. Among their unrestricted free agents are defencemen Sergei Gonchar, Jay McKee, Mark Eaton and Jordan Leopold and forwards Matt Cooke, Alex Ponikarovsky, Ruslan Fedotenko and Bill Guerin.
As usual, general manager Ray Shero will try to find a proven scorer to fit onto Crosby’s or Malkin’s line. If he does, Guerin could be out. Fedotenko and Ponikarovsky are all but certain to leave. Cooke is one of the NHL’s best agitators but also is a consistent scorer, a combination that draws considerable interest on the open market.
Gonchar, at age 36, wants to return, but it’s unlikely the Penguins would offer him more than a two-year contract.
“You don’t really know what will happen,” defenceman Alex Goligoski said. “A lot of guys in locker room will be back, but there is a lot of uncertainty.”