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Slain By Fate

The Penguins have clearly established in recent seasons, through the expectations of their coaches and players as well as the financial commitment of their ownership, that for them the evaluation of a season gone by is a fairly simple exercise. Success is winning the Stanley Cup.

“When you don’t win it, it’s a loss,” shrugged goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury after a 1-0 Game 7 home loss to Tampa Bay brought Pittsburgh’s first opening-round playoff exit in four years. “First round, second round… the playoffs, that’s where it matters and where it’s good to play. It’s just disappointing.”

That disappointment was compounded last month by a number of factors, including the Penguins losing a 3-1 series lead for the first time in 36 years and losing three home games in one series for the second time in team history.

While the absence of injured stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin did nothing to assuage the frustration of the 20 guys coach Dan Bylsma stood by for those three consecutive losses— he did not change his lineup as the series took a decided turn south—neither can it be ignored, of course, when taking stock of the 2010-11 season.

This, after all, was roughly the equivalent of the Penguins going into the 1992 playoffs without Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, or the 2011 equivalent of the Chicago Blackhawks checking into the post-season without Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane or the Vancouver Canucks taking their Presidents Trophy into mid-April without Henrik and Daniel Sedin.

“Taking the two best players out of any lineup changes it,” said Chris Kunitz. “But we had guys step up and play different roles; a lot of guys changed maybe what the team thought of how they were going to play.”

It will easy for the Penguins to spend the off-season thinking about what might have been for a team that amassed 106 points and finished fourth overall despite the fact three of their four pillars—Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal—each missed half the season. And Crosby missed the second half with a concussion after piecing together a first half that had him pointed squarely at the best season of his career.

But a closer look at the past season shows plenty for the Penguins to build upon as they begin thinking about next fall and playing with a healthy Crosby, a Malkin with a healthy knee and a Matt Cooke who’s not under league suspension for 17 games. It certainly will be remembered as the season when the Two-Headed Monster was slain by Fate, but Bylsma—whose positive coaching philosophy takes a page from Badger Bob’s—doesn’t believe that’s entirely fair.

“I think it would be a significant error,” he said, “for the history books to talk about this year in that regard to this team, the way they played and worked all year long and found ways to be successful, given the situations we were in right from the start. The work ethic and passion with which they played and their ability to continue to be a good team – that’s what, I think, this year was about.

“I’m proud of this team and the way we battled. We left everything out there.”

Bylsma’s status as a finalist for next month’s Jack Adams Trophy as NHL coach of the year and his new contract extension underscore the fact Pittsburgh has the right guy behind the bench going forward – in case there was anybody around who felt he was simply succeeding by tapping the shoulders of some of the world’s best players. Under challenging circumstances, Bylsma’s belief in an up-tempo system that constantly pushes his players up the ice, minimizing their time in the defensive zone and asking them to extract a physical price on opponents for 60 minutes, has been firmly embraced by the franchise’s players and has been proven to work under extreme conditions.

Staal said he would remember “the way we battled mentally throughout the whole season, kept pushing the envelope, kept working, kept winning games.” The Penguins, indeed, have come a long way from a franchise whose most high-profile successes were a direct result of their offensive gifts.

Bylsma and his staff put together the first penalty killing units in team history to finish first in the NHL , part of what made the Penguins so sound defensively. The other part was the presence of that other pillar – Fleury. After a so-so season that ended in a disastrous seven-game playoff loss to Montreal last spring, Fleury rebounded with his best regular-season ever – despite a five-week hiccup to start. This season cemented his place among the game’s elite goaltenders.

“Our goaltender was our best player through the last half of the season,” said Kunitz. “We knew weren’t going to get a ton of goals.”

The Penguins’ raft of injuries meant players down the franchise’s depth chart either got NHL time that hadn’t been planned or roles that might have pushed the envelope of their development. Those players almost universally reacted well.

Defensemen Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland both played well in their first NHL seasons, Engelland providing a physical presence that could not be ignored. Center Mark Letestu was the best rookie faceoff man in the league and was enjoying a fine season before injuries limited him over the final three months. Centers Dustin Jeffrey and Joe Vitale, meanwhile, were pressed into duty and handled themselves well, answering questions about their NHL readiness before Pittsburgh management had a chance to properly ask them.

“Guys who got called up picked up the slack and played really well,” said defenseman Kris Letang, who looked like a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate before a mediocre second half.

The Penguins’ playoff loss to Tampa Bay cemented the fact the Penguins need Crosby and Malkin not only to provide big goals at big moments but to be the difference-makers on a power play that was completely and utterly lost without them. But the season that preceded it proved the team has solid depth, solid coaching, has drafted well and has the pieces up and down the organization to keep the team a perennial playoff presence – a goal asserted by general manager Ray Shero when he was hired.

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