- Scott Burnside, NHL
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OTTAWA -- The big myth about the Pittsburgh Penguins is that whatever happened in the playoffs was gravy. Somehow, playing their way into the playoffs with a startling 105-point regular season, a season after finishing 29th overall, would be satisfaction enough.
Funny how the gaunt, drawn faces of the Penguins players put the lie to that theory -- at least for the moment.
In the wake of their 3-0 loss Thursday night that ended their playoff run after five games, it was hard to find players who were looking beyond anything but the disappointment of the moment.
"I know a lot of our writers and media have been saying that, win or lose, we've made such a great improvement during the season. I know in our locker room that wasn't the attitude and mentality," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said Thursday night. "I know, going into this series, what we did in the regular season was way back in the backs of our minds."
Still, there is an almost universal consensus that in order to learn how to win, a team must first drink the bitter poison of losing. There is likewise an almost universal consensus that this team of emerging young stars will be back with a vengeance.
"It was a big turnaround. There's no doubt that we'll be proud of the way we prepared for this season and really came together," said 19-year-old sensation Sidney Crosby. "The playoffs, obviously, it's tough. Maybe it's something that needs to happen for us to win."
"I think those young kids got a lot of experience from that," added coach Michel Therrien. "There's nothing to be ashamed from our season. I think looking at the big picture, it's a great season for this franchise. It's a huge step.
"I'm really proud of that group of young men. They accomplished something pretty big this year."
So, what did we learn about Crosby and the rest of this talented young team? What did he learn through the experience? Let us count the ways.
1. First, stop the presses, but the kid's pretty good
OK, so you think that's a no-brainer for the NHL's leading scorer. But don't forget, he's only 19. For five straight games, he got more than a healthy dose of the Senators' top two defensemen, Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov, and still managed to lead the Penguins with five points.
"It wasn't like there weren't chances," Crosby said. "I'm not going to sit here and say they didn't do a good job, because they did. But the competitive side of me says that I had my chances, too."
Playing with a bevy of different wingers, Crosby still managed to create a significant number of scoring chances over the five games.
"I wouldn't say he's been awe-inspiring, but I'd say he's been very good," former NHLer and Pittsburgh Penguins television analyst Bob Errey said.
Added Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson: "He plays really well. Obviously, you do pay attention when he's on the ice all the time. He's one heck of a player, no question."
2. Rough and tumble?
For the most part, Crosby recognized and managed to avoid the nightly attempts by Phillips and Volchenkov to force him into the middle of the ice, where they could physically contain him. That said, Crosby was physically challenged at every turn by the Senators, whether it was the defensive duo or the Alfredsson forward unit that played against Crosby for most of the series.
Despite the aggressive play, Crosby didn't change his game. Relying on his incredible low center of gravity and leg strength, Crosby took the rough stuff and still made play after play.
"He played well. Played really well. [He] works hard. That's Sidney Crosby. He's a guy who works, he battles, he had some chances," Therrien said.
3. Focus, focus, focus
It's been Crosby's hallmark since he first became a household name in the hockey world in his early teens. Yet, the playoffs are something entirely different. Every day for the past nine days, Crosby would trek off to a podium where he answered questions from a significant media contingent while his teammates had the luxury of doing interviews at their dressing room stalls, or in hallways, or not at all.
Yet, in spite of playing in his first NHL playoff series, a series that took him to his native Canada where interest in the series was enormous, Crosby stayed on task. He had a couple of disallowed goals that might have changed the course of the series, but he didn't go off the rails.
"He's got a great ability to put the past in the past," Errey said.
''I think Sidney Crosby will probably get lots of chances in his career to win a championship," added Ottawa coach Bryan Murray. "He's that kind of player. He'll take a lot of guys along with him. He'll help them a lot more than they'll help him, I can guarantee you that.''
4. Would you like some cheese with that whine?
A member of the Senators organization told ESPN.com early in the series that he thought Crosby should have been born during The Great Depression, "because then he'd have known what it was to have had something to really whine about. It's embarrassing."
Harsh? Perhaps. But after being seen carping to on-ice officials on a regular basis in the front half of the series, Crosby abruptly began to hold his tongue. A source said he had heard Crosby's landlord, Mario Lemieux, suggested Crosby tone down his contact with officials. Maybe Crosby figured it out on his own.
Regardless, whatever prompted the change, it was an important step in Crosby's education. NHL officials have said Crosby was much less prone to complaining during the regular season than in his rookie season. The fact he learned to leave it alone in the playoffs is another sign of his incredible faculty for the nuances of the game.
The rest of the Penguins? Here are a couple of things this series revealed:
1. Malkin's struggles
As good as rookie-of-the-year-in-waiting Evgeni Malkin was during the regular season, he couldn't quite figure out the ramped-up pace of the playoffs. He chipped in four assists, but didn't score. When the Penguins desperately needed scoring depth over the last two games and managed just one goal, it might have been nice for the 33-goal man to contribute. The reasons for the drop-off: the high level of play and likely fatigue as Malkin was used to playing fewer games in the Russian Elite League.
2. Staal is 'scary' good
Jordan Staal, at 18, looks anything but a teenager. A member of the ubiquitous Staal clan of Thunder Bay, Ontario, he tied the team scoring lead with three goals, killed penalties and generally played like a seasoned pro. Therrien suggested it was "scary" how good Staal is. A pretty apt description.
3. Defensive depth
One Eastern Conference scout said there was no way the Penguins could advance with their defensive shortcomings. And while they weren't horrific, Game 5 revealed the team's lack of depth. Turnovers killed the team and the blue line chipped in just two goals in the series. Expect GM Ray Shero to be mining the free-agent market for some defensive help in the offseason.
Fleury holds his own
Marc-Andre Fleury has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. Some forget his play was so inconsistent, he wasn't the starter in the AHL playoffs the last couple of seasons. Yet, in his first NHL playoff series, Fleury more than held his own. In Game 5, with the Senators threatening to blow open the game in the second and third periods, Fleury was especially strong. A good sign for the future.
Therrien shows his mettle
There were more than a few eyebrows raised when Therrien was kept on by the Penguins despite the arrival of Shero. Whether Therrien will ultimately be Shero's guy over the long term remains to be seen, but he acquitted himself admirably in this series. Unafraid to speak the truth, either about his team's obvious nervousness or the need to get more from players like Malkin, Therrien also worked his bench like a maniac. Lacking the depth the Senators possess, he shuffled lines in an effort to find some magic. It didn't quite work out, but that is not an indictment of Therrien's coaching prowess.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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