PITTSBURGH -- As Dan Bylsma addressed the assembled media in Mellon Arena for the last time in the 2009-10 season, he looked to his right and saw a giant reminder of why this day was not easy for him.
There was a wall-sized photo of his team gathered at center ice in Detroit less than 12 months ago, all crowding around the Stanley Cup for a picture they won't soon forget. There will be no such photo to commemorate this season after the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
"I wish I didn't have human thoughts, but like everybody -- you look at that picture and I think this is a group of guys who could have been in that picture again this year," Bylsma said on a day for exit interviews with players and assessing what went wrong. "The opportunity we had with playing Montreal in the second round and moving on, it is disappointing because of everyone's expectations and thinking you don't get this opportunity every year."
"You definitely get the mind going and it is hard to sleep. The best thing all of us can do right now is remove ourselves from hockey and not pay too much attention to the playoffs. It is the hardest loss I've ever had for sure. It is something we need to grow from and get stronger from and hope it doesn't happen again." -- Mike Rupp
In previous games it had been strong defense or amazing goaltending that propelled the Canadiens, but Montreal was the better team in the deciding contest of the series. The Penguins, who had participated in all four rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the previous two seasons, were left to ponder an early exit.
"You definitely get the mind going and it is hard to sleep," Mike Rupp said. "The best thing all of us can do right now is remove ourselves from hockey and not pay too much attention to the playoffs. It is the hardest loss I've ever had for sure. It is something we need to grow from and get stronger from and hope it doesn't happen again.”
Montreal was able to contain Pittsburgh's star players in the series, much in the same way the Canadiens kept some of Washington's bevy of scorers from beating them. Sidney Crosby finished the series with 1 goal and 5 points after an incredible first round against Ottawa.
Evgeni Malkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy last year as postseason MVP, but never found that level this spring. He had just 1 goal and 3 points against the Canadiens.
"Geno (Malkin) had roughly 40 points less this year than last year, so there is going to be some questions and some criticisms," Bylsma said. "I think Geno feels this. We think Geno is a 114-point guy and he wasn't that for us this year. I think with the status and the meaning they (Malkin and Crosby) have with our team and the quality of the players they are, when things don't go well, you get criticism."
While the Penguins still have a core of young star players that is the envy of most NHL organizations, general manager Ray Shero has some work to do to keep his club among the top contenders for the Stanley Cup next season.
Pittsburgh has eight unrestricted free agents who were a part of the club in the postseason, including four defensemen. The most expensive of those is their No. 1 blueliner, Sergei Gonchar. He is the quarterback of the power play and the team's ice-time leader, but he'll be 37 next season and has made $5 million a season during his five-year pact.
"I like this city. I like the fans that support us. I love the teammates," Gonchar said. "It seems like we have a great group of guys here with great chemistry. Not knowing if you're going to come back is obviously not a great feeling, but at the same time we still have plenty of time before July 1. We're going to have plenty of time to sit down and do something."
Among the forwards, two key players for the Penguins to try and retain could be Bill Guerin and Matt Cooke. Guerin will be 40 next season, but still scored 21 goals this season on a team light on scoring wingers.
Cooke has been an integral part of what is one of the best third lines in hockey, along with Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy. He made $1.2 million the past two seasons, but could be in for a raise after a strong 2010 postseason.
"For the better part of two years I played with (Staal) and (Kennedy) and we had a pretty good niche for ourselves," Cooke said. "It is so hard to sit here and talk about what-ifs. All I can say is between the organization and myself, we are going to try and get something done."
Better play from Malkin and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury also will go a long way toward keeping the Penguins among the League's elite, but Pittsburgh could use a strong defensive-minded defensemen and a scoring winger or two.
The Penguins will open the 2010-11 season across the street in a sparkling new building. There will not be a Stanley Cup banner ceremony to open the season, but the expectations will remain the same -- they will want the year to end with a photo just like the one from Detroit last summer.
"This team is obviously put together quite well where we plan on being in that position and contending and being one of the elite teams in the League next year and the years to come," Rupp said. "I think we just need to take a few steps back as players and evaluate what happened and why are we done right now. What did Montreal do that their season goes on and we have to be better in those aspects."
Added Cooke: "It is a pretty great organization and they've set themselves up for long-term success. The guys in the room come to the rink and feel a part of something that is moving forward and winning and a positive attitude. That's a fun thing."