PITTSBURGH -- Maybe fatigue caught up to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Or perhaps the emotion and commitment that carried them through the 303 games they've played the last three seasons simply ran out.
Whatever it was -- and it might take months to sort out -- there seemed to be something missing nearly all season from a group that expected to win another Stanley Cup but fell far short of doing so.
The Penguins were the NHL's best team during the first month of the season. After that, they never approached that level again.
Their 5-2 loss to Montreal in Game 7 of the conference semifinals on Wednesday was one of the worst big-game performances in franchise history, and it neatly summed up eight months' worth of work. The season that was supposed to be simply never was.
They totalled 101 points, two short of finishing second in the Eastern Conference, and a five-game losing streak represented their only poor stretch all season.
Regardless, a team that talked all season of raising its game to the level it achieved while winning the Stanley Cup last season never got there. And now it never will.
Marc-Andre Fleury infrequently resembled the goalie who couldn't be beaten in the final two games against Detroit last year. Sergei Gonchar, coming off a serious knee injury, rarely found his game legs during his worst season statistically in five years. Evgeni Malkin's scoring touch vanished for lengthy stretches. And Sidney Crosby simply couldn't do it all by himself.
"This doesn't feel good," Jordan Staal said after the Penguins failed to stretch their season into June for the first time in three years.
The Penguins couldn't have looked much better early on, winning nine of their first 10 and 11 of their first 13. As their weaknesses surfaced, they simply were an average team. Counting their seven overtime losses, they dropped 33 of their final 69 regular-season games.
Crosby reshaped his game to become more of a goal-scorer than a playmaker, and his 51 goals tied for the league lead. But Malkin regressed while missing 15 games, one factor for a falloff from a league-high 113 points in 2008-09 to 77 points.
Malkin also went from being a plus-17 in 2008-09 to a minus-6. A year after winning the Conn Smythe as the playoffs MVP, he was held to one goal in his final nine post-season games.
Crosby wouldn't blame the grind of playing so many games over three seasons for the playoff failure, but Malkin and Gonchar seemed worn down at times. Gonchar's contract is up and he might not return.
One problem persisted -- the lack of an effective goal-scorer to play alongside Crosby or Malkin -- and another developed.
Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill, the defencemen who were so vital to the playoff run a year ago, left for bigger contracts. The Penguins didn't have the salary cap room to replace them. The only defenceman to elevate his play was Brooks Orpik.
Forward Max Talbot was held to two goals while being hurt most of the season, or as many goals as he had in Game 7 of last year's Stanley Cup final against Detroit. Ruslan Fedotenko re-signed, but scored only 11 goals in 86 regular-season and playoff games. Bill Guerin contributed 45 points, but the 39-year-old was a minus-9.
General manager Ray Shero, aware that his team was a forward short of making a lengthy playoff run, dealt for Toronto's Alexei Ponikarovsky at the deadline, but he proved to be a huge disappointment. Ponikarovsky scored three goals in 27 games and was scratched late in the Montreal series.
No shutdown defenceman. No reliable secondary scoring. Not enough consistency in goal. Too much pressure on Crosby and Malkin to score. Too many expectations the Penguins could boot up their best game when needed in the playoffs without doing the hard work needed to get there.
With so many potential shortcomings, maybe that surprise ouster by eighth-seeded Montreal wasn't all that stunning. The Canadiens played like they wanted it more, much like the younger Penguins did against the Red Wings last spring.
"Very, very disappointing," Fleury said.
Now, a new season will bring a new arena, the Consol Energy Center, to replace 49-year-old Mellon Arena. The Penguins didn't give the old building much of a send-off, and that might be one of their biggest regrets.
"Everything doesn't always work out perfectly the way you want it to," Crosby said.