BOSTON -- They had all the markings of greatness, but in the end the Pittsburgh Penguins were revealed as being something far, far less.
In less than a week, the star-studded Penguins were shown a great lesson about greatness, about will, about discipline and, ultimately, about moving on by the Boston Bruins.
As the time wound down in Boston’s 1-0 victory in Game 4 on Friday night, the Penguins must have, to a man, wondered how it all went so bad so quickly.
Four games, two goals, zero power play-goals, zero leads.
There is, quite simply, no other way to describe that output other than shocking.
"I share your disbelief [that] that's a possible storyline in this series,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "You know, at times -- even going down to maybe the last play at net by [Evgeni] Malkin, when he had the empty net -- it felt like something was keeping the puck out of the net.
"It certainly wasn't lack of opportunity or scoring chances or situations for our team, for our players, for our power play. We did have them. And at the end it felt like not only Tuukka Rask was keeping the puck out of the net, but there was a force around the net, because we had some great opportunities, good situations for our team, our players, and were not able to find any kind of goal in this series, and never a lead."
In the Penguins locker room, Malkin, a man who had 10 shots in Game 3’s double-overtime loss but had just one shot in Game 4, sat hunched over as reporters crowded around captain Sidney Crosby and then James Neal.
Across the way, Pascal Dupuis, the last player to shed his gear, sat head down, eyes red with emotion.
This was a team that was built to win these kinds of games, to win this kind of series.
The Penguins added key personnel at the trade deadline in the form of Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla, who eschewed a trade to Boston to come to the Penguins, along with Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen.
Those players were added to help propel the Penguins through these kinds of moments. Instead, they conspired to somehow make the team slower, less fluid.
Iginla especially struggled in the Eastern Conference finals. He won few puck battles, contributed little on the power play and was finally shuffled down through the lineup.
"Obviously, we’re a very good team, too,” Iginla said. "We went cold at the wrong time, as far as going in. I had a very tough series, there’s no question about that. Those close games, we believed we were going to find a way to win those close games, and we didn’t and they did and they’re moving on. They played great hockey."
Ultimately, that Adam McQuaid’s rocket that would be the decisive goal in Game 4 would tick off Iginla’s stick would speak volumes about the wildly different paths these two teams had taken in this oh-so-brief series.
Six different Bruins scored in this series, and David Krejci outscored the entire Penguin roster with four goals.
And while neither team managed to score a single power-play goal in the series, combining to go 0-for-28, the Bruins were able to rise above it because they got just enough timely scoring, just enough timely saves from Rask, just a little bit more from their lineup.
"This series here against Pittsburgh was not a 4-0 series," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "I really felt that the breaks went our way in this series on a lot of occasions. You just have to look back right at the end of the game, where Malkin has the open net and Zdeno [Chara] makes the arm save. They dinged some shots off the post. If those go in, it's a different series.
"That's the unfortunate part of this game, you know, sometimes as a team, you don't get the breaks and you wonder what you have to do. I think that's where Pittsburgh was a little snakebitten that way, and we were the team that was taking advantage of our breaks.
"That's not to say we didn't play well, because when you allow two goals to a team like that in four games, your team certainly deserves some credit. I think defensively our guys did a great job against their top players of taking away time and space."
In the end, the Bruins probably won’t get the credit they’re due in defusing the Penguins lineup, as the focus will be on the act of failing as opposed to the act of succeeding. When you look at the Penguins lineup and how little it generated, it is human nature to dwell on the negative.
The team’s star players -- Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Neal -- considered the best in the world at what they do, combined for zero points.
How does that happen?
In the Penguins dressing room, a mixture of stunned surprise and regret hung in the air.
"You know what? There weren’t times where we were worried, to be honest with you," offered captain Crosby. "Where we felt like we were losing momentum. There’s times where you get three, four shifts where they’re hemming you in and you feel like they’ve got a lot of pressure. There wasn’t really any point besides that second game where we felt like that.
"If you look back and chances are there, I mean, you try to fight, you try to get through to the net and get rebounds, and sometimes they come to you and sometimes they don’t. Obviously, you score two goals as a team in four games, and personally to go without any points, it doesn’t sit very well."
Neal finished the second round against Ottawa with a flourish, scoring five times and adding two assists in the last two games. In Game 4 against the Bruins, he had five shots and a number of solid chances but could not produce that one moment that might have changed the course of this series.
"Obviously, very disappointing," Neal said. "You know I look to score goals, like to score goals to help the team win, and the chances were there. I had some great shots, some great looks, but couldn’t find the back of the net, and their goalie came up big and a few unlucky bounces where the puck’s rolling a bit, but, I mean, no excuses. I’ve got to score and help the team win.
"It’s a tough feeling right now because you feel like you didn’t do anything when you go out four games like that."
If there is soul-searching within the dressing room, in the coming days there likely will be soul-searching in the boardrooms of the Penguins.
While the Bruins will rest and contemplate whether they will face the Los Angeles Kings or Chicago Blackhawks in their second trip to the Stanley Cup finals in three years, the Penguins will contemplate what went wrong and how best to fix it.
There seems little doubt general manager Ray Shero will move netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who was pulled after Game 4 of the opening round and didn’t start another game (although he did come on in relief in Game 3 of the conference finals, a 6-1 loss to the Bruins).
There will be decisions on Letang, who can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season and as a Norris Trophy nominee will command top dollar and a significant term. But Letang was spotty during the playoffs and, while better in Game 4, struggled mightily against the Bruins’ forecheck in the first three games, forcing passes, committing turnovers and generally looking very un-Norris-like.
If Shero doesn’t think he can bring Letang under contract, he will likely explore moving him before next season.
"If we would have lost in seven, it’s the same result, we don’t move on. We want to move on," Letang said.
"Every year when we look at our dressing room, we think we have a chance. I think if we don’t reach the final, it’s a fail for us."
Most of the discussion, though, will be on Bylsma's future. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009 after replacing Michel Therrien midseason, the Pens have beaten the Ottawa Senators twice and the New York Islanders once in the postseason.
Is that enough?
Is being among the final four this year enough for Shero to give Bylsma another shot at taking this team back to glory?
What is the measure of success for a coach and, more specifically, a coach who has such a wealth of options set before him, as has been the case in Pittsburgh?
Certainly Bylsma did not shy away from discussing the considerable expectations both internally and externally that his team failed to meet.
"Our team is a team that considers itself a team capable of winning a Stanley Cup, put together to win a Stanley Cup. That's our expectation from day one. That's how we build through the season. We certainly feel that we were a team that was capable of winning a Stanley Cup," Bylsma said. "So, you know, coming up short from that, no question, it's disappointing. No question, you feel like with the expectations that we have on ourselves, that the team has for this group, no question you're going to look at this as a missed opportunity."