If the Penguins collective performance in Game 5 was adismal (abysmal + dismal), Game 7 was the opposite.
I was in awe.
Marc-Andre Fleury was magnificent. The penalty killers were just as good, finally shutting down the dynamic Tampa power play.
They generated rushes, they transitioned, they fought for every puck along the boards. They outhit the Lightning by a mile.
It was gutty and gritty and it reminded me of why I like this team so much.
But it wasn't enough.
The Lightning are loaded with goal scorers -- Steven Stamkos, Simon Gagne, Vincent Lecavalier, and, of course, Martin St. Louis. The Penguins were without their best goal-scorers and even though they managed to win more often than not in the regular season, that inability to score in bunches became a deep, life-sucking crevasse in the post-season.
With a full-compliment of skaters and scorers, offensively speaking, the Lightning were shooting with uzis. The Penguins could only counter with flintlock muskets. (Frankly, it should have been more like .38's, and if anybody's seen Kris Letang's shot, I'm sure he'd like it back. You can turn it in at the Lost & Found at Consol Energy Center. Just through the Trib Total Media Gate -- the one opposite the old barn.)
Imagine what Tampa Bay might have looked like without their leader (Martin St. Louis) and one of their best snipers (Steven Stamkos) on the ice? Think they would have been able to bounce back from 3-1?
The other issue with the Penguins and I think this is the real crux of the matter -- was a pronounced leadership void. The Penguins are all good soldiers. Perhaps there are none better than guys like Tyler Kennedy, Mike Rupp, Craig Adams and Max Talbot -- if I were in a foxhole, I'd want those guys with me, for a fact. But Sidney Crosby is the leader of this team, not just in points, not just in goals scored, not just in stick skills. He is their leader in the intangible ways. His heart, his drive, his bravura all power this team. And like good soldiers, they follow him. He doesn't wear that captain's "C" solely because he's a goal scorer. He wears it because he's their unquestioned leader.
Some guys disappeared for much of this series (yes, Letang and Jordan Staal, I am looking at you), but not last night. Game 7, it was all hands on deck and it looked to me like they tried their best, gave their best, most complete effort, ironically enough, in a loss.
Like good soldiers, the Penguins did everything they knew to do, but without General Omar Bradley out there wearing #87, it was a valiant effort in a losing cause.
I'm sad to see the season end, but I never thought they could seriously make a run at the Cup without Sid. Or Geno, for that matter. Some day, the sting of this loss will fade and we'll remember the many good things from this season, but not right now. Today is a good day to mourn.
[Image from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.]