There was never going to be a next year for this particular group of Pittsburgh Penguins.
With a slew of free agents and a declining salary cap, this was destined to be an off-season full of tough decisions for general manager Ray Shero and his hockey operations staff.
It was inevitable. The only way to keep the clouds in the distance and put off tomorrow a little bit longer was to continue winning playoff games.
Now that they’ve stopped doing that — falling behind the Boston Bruins 3-0 in the Eastern Conference final — it’s hard not to wonder what kind of lasting mark a sudden exit would leave on the organization.
At minimum, it would come with massive disappointment and more tarnish to the legacy of the team that was expected to be the closest thing to dominant in the NHL’s parity era.
But it will also shape the decisions made by Shero this summer and who knows where he goes from here?
There are no easy answers to be found in what has transpired over the last week.
Heading into Game 3 against Boston, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he expected to learn about the mindset and makeup of his group. Perhaps the only silver lining to be taken from what became a 2-1 double overtime loss that ended in the early hours of Thursday morning was that his players showed up.
They had every chance to cower after the disastrous Game 2 performance and an early goal by playoff scoring leader David Krejci, but instead offered plenty of pushback.
There would be 54 shots heaved at Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask — 10 of them coming from an energized Evgeni Malkin — before Patrice Bergeron scored his second overtime goal of these playoffs with a nice tip off the rush.
As you might expect, Bylsma tried to focus on the positives after his team had been pushed to the edge of the abyss.
“It was a very good response from our team,” he told reporters at TD Garden. “We did a lot of things to get opportunities to win the hockey game. … We did everything but get the game-winning goal there.”
What they also didn’t get in the biggest game of the season was any offensive output from Malkin or Sidney Crosby. It is almost inconceivable that the duo has been held off the scoresheet in this series — even with Rask playing as well as he has.
Consider this: Crosby was last held pointless for three games in November 2009 while Malkin last had that happen in November 2010.
What are the odds of both of them having those streaks end at the same time?
All of the deadline deals for rental players in the world won’t mean much if your top two centres aren’t producing. That will clearly have to change immediately for the Penguins to create any sliver of hope that they might actually find a way out of this.
Even if they were to win Game 4 on Friday night — “I think we all trust and believe we can get this back to Pittsburgh,” said Crosby — it is pretty difficult to fathom the Bruins freight train being completely derailed right now.
Boston, of course, has already experienced its own brush with disaster this spring.
And when it was trailing the Toronto Maple Leafs by a large deficit in Game 7 in the first round, the players began to wonder if the core of the 2011 Stanley Cup champions was soon to be dismantled.
“When you’re looking at the clock wind down with half a period left at 4-1 you start thinking to yourself: `Is this the end of this group here?”’ Bruins forward Milan Lucic said back on May 13. “Because it probably would have been if we didn’t win this game.”
You have to wonder about the mindset of the Penguins today. Might they now be having a few similar thoughts creeping into the back of their heads?
Beyond the untouchables – Crosby and Malkin – the changes could be considerable.
There certainly won’t be enough money to retain all of the pending free agents (Pascal Dupuis, Jarome Iginla, and Matt Cooke among them), and with extensions due to Malkin and Kris Letang, trades are a possibility as well.
This was always going to be the case for Shero, but he had hoped to be making those moves after first experiencing another Stanley Cup celebration.
I was among those who believed he would get that chance, especially after seeing his team adopt a championship swagger while man-handling the Ottawa Senators in the second round.
But suddenly the ground is shifting beneath the Penguins’ skates and it’s going to take all of the greatness we’ve come to expect from them and more to stabilize this situation now.
Truth be told, even that might not be enough.