2011 NHL Playoffs: Pittsburgh Penguins Have Plenty to Be Proud of This Season

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2011 NHL Playoffs: Pittsburgh Penguins Have Plenty to Be Proud of This Season
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The closing article for a team freshly eliminated from the playoffs is just as terrible as giving up a 3-1 series lead to the lower seed.

But, an exception must be made for the Pittsburgh Penguins who, despite their bitter Game 7 loss against the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday evening, put together a season for the ages.

With every playoff elimination, there is a unique sting associated with it.

In 2008, the Penguins community faced the sting of losing on the grandest of stages to a polished hockey club. It was painful, but at the same time, not surprising given the age of the members of the team and their experience levels.

In 2010, the sting was elevated to a punch in the gut.

Losing to a trapping team with a hot goalie and a sneaky winger to close off the last season at Mellon Arena was the equivalent of failing a final exam before graduation. It was topped off with an overall poor and uninspired performance from the Pens.

This season is a little different.

There seems to be a sense of peace surrounding the Pens' elimination.

Sure, there will always be fans who will lose a screw unless they hit the bars following the game or those who feel the need to unleash their frustrations to the TV or on Twitter. They showed up last night, but they were outnumbered.

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Many hockey fans will look back at this Pens season and see an early exit from the playoffs. In actuality, it was so much more.

Since Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin took the spotlight with their brilliant play, the story of the Penguins has surrounded their on and off ice leadership and how it would carry the team to victory. Because the focus was so concentrated on those two—along with third-line-center Jordan Staal, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and defensemen Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik—the depth of the team was often questioned, especially in the winger position.

Most importantly, people casually wondered what kind of team Pittsburgh would be if they didn't have their star forwards.

For 80 games in the 2010-2011 season, the NHL saw just what it was like for one of the top three centers to be out of the lineup. The three would miss 126-man games to injury, excluding the playoffs.

And this only included the top three centers.

The injuries piled on as the season progressed and the Pittsburgh Penguins slowly turned into the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins with numerous call-ups flooding the roster spots.

Amazing enough, the Pens didn't miss a beat and play continued like a missed call.

No analyst in his wildest dreams would have guessed that the Pens could withstand half a season without the services of Crosby and Malkin and end the season with home ice advantage. After all, this team depended too heavily on its stars.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
The rest of the team must not have heard, as they finished the season with 106 points—the highest total since the drafting of Crosby and Malkin. No longer was the story about Crosby riding a historic scoring streak, but how the team would depend on Tyler Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis to score.

The story also turned to Fleury's transformation from a fluky to game-saving goaltender—a remarkable turnaround given the volume of hate sent his way at the end of the 2010 playoffs and the start of the 2010-2011 season.

Dan Bylsma and the rest of the coaching staff is also credited for keeping the team together despite the ever-changing lineup and his ability to maintain his up-tempo style without his key players.

Whenever everything around this team was falling apart, they stuck together and dug deep to prevent any damage to their place in the standings.

Many teams would and have simply fallen apart. We see it every season.

But there clearly was something special about this team and losing Crosby and Malkin was necessary to expose the value of the players hidden in the shadows.

We saw Kennedy become a 20-goal-scorer for the first time in his NHL career. We saw Letang dominate the blue line offensively and defensively with a confidence that seemingly blossomed overnight.

The fact is, we saw so much good this season, it's almost difficult to be upset over a first-round elimination when making the first round, to many at the time, seemed as improbable as Eric Godard scoring a hat trick.

This doesn't mean there was no disappointment when the final horn sounded to close the book on the intense series. No Pittsburgh fan-base will ever find 100-percent satisfaction in a loss.

Unlike 2010, the majority of the disappointment didn't stem from a poor showing when it mattered.

Sure, there were plenty of frustrations surrounding the team's play, but having no Crosby and Malkin is a big reason why this was. Not to mention Game 7 was a hard-fought battle from both sides and anything but a poor showing from the Pens.

Instead, the disappointment came from the "what if?" questions that will surround this season for many weeks, months, even years to come.

What if the Pens didn't have players dropping like flies every few games?

What if Crosby was examined immediately following the Dave Steckel hit at the Winter Classic?

In the upcoming season, there will be plenty of unfinished business and you can expect Crosby—who should be healthy and skating by then,—to be ready to finish the season he started. Not to mention, the confidence instilled in the Pens for the past few months could be a serious force in the future.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Focusing on the loss of the series over the growth this team experienced through the tough times would be a shot to the dedication these athletes have to their sport, regardless of whether things are going right or wrong. Focusing on what could have been takes away from what this team managed to accomplish through hard work and resilience.

In the end, what we do know is that the Pens are a special group of players that fought tooth and nail to maintain their fourth-place seed in the standings and took a talented Bolts team—riding a hot forward and goalie—to seven games.

And they did it after a grueling three-month battle without their star players.

That's something to be proud of.

 

Laura Falcon is a Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins.    Follow her on Twitter or email her at lfalcon@mail.umw.edu with any comments or questions.

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