- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PITTSBURGH -- No matter how you define success, how you manage expectations or how you rationalize the past, this stands as a spring of reckoning for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
That's what happens when you have the world's best player in Sidney Crosby and a deep, talented supporting cast. Each spring is a championship waiting to happen.
That the Penguins have not advanced to the Stanley Cup finals since winning the championship in 2009 reinforces just how monumental the task is to be the last team standing when the annual 16-team grudge match is over.
Even if we accept that it's nigh on impossible to win multiple championships in a short period of time, it doesn't lessen the expectations that the Penguins should have done just that. And further, when they fail, as they have in different manners over the past four years, the pressure to address those failures likewise escalates exponentially.
Fair to say that this spring could represent a critical mass if those lofty expectations are once again at loggerheads with disappointing results.
"With this team, realistically you have a chance to win," winger James Neal told ESPN.com Tuesday on the eve of the team's first-round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. "You've got the players to win, you've got the organization, the coaching, you've got everything that could potentially be a Stanley Cup-winning team and they've showed it and they've done it."
Neal acknowledged that for other teams the discussion at this time of year might be about how, if everything goes right, they've got a chance to win.
"But here it's different," said Neal, who was acquired by the Penguins from Dallas before the 2011 trade deadline. "Everyone expects you to win it. You want to win it, you want to do your best. I think us getting healthy at the right time this year and everything kind of falling into place before [the] playoffs is a good start for us."
So does the sting of failing to meet these lofty playoff expectations burn more deeply for the players who wear the jersey?
"It does. Yeah. It does," Neal said. "It's been like that ever since I got here, and it's disappointing. Especially the kinds of ways we've gone out in the past years makes it even tougher. But at the same time, we've grown as a team and grown as players, and each year is different."
The Penguins have failed to make good on their significant Stanley Cup expectations in a variety of manners. In 2010, fatigue inevitably set in when they were upset by Montreal in the second round after failing to close out a 3-2 series lead. In 2011, they blew a 3-1 series lead to Tampa after losing both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the playoffs.
The following year, the Penguins were embarrassed by Philadelphia in the first round, falling behind 3-0 in the series and eventually bowing out in six games as netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was a disaster and the team collectively lost its composure against its cross-state rival.
Last year, the Penguins returned to the final four for the first time since their back-to-back runs to the Cup finals in 2008 and 2009. While that was an accomplishment in and of itself, the fact that they were swept by the Boston Bruins in the conference finals and scored only two goals in four games left a singular stain on the fabric of the talented team.
Veteran forward Craig Adams won a Stanley Cup in Carolina in 2006 before coming to Pittsburgh in March of 2009 in time for the team's run to a Game 7 victory over Detroit in the Stanley Cup finals. He believes teams that aren't used to playoff success might find it easier to truly narrow their focus when the playoffs begin.
"I think if maybe it's your first year in the playoffs in a long, long time and you feel like you're an underdog and ... I've been in those situations; you don't look ahead to four series down the road," Adams said in an interview. "The good news there is you're really, really focused on Game 1. You don't worry about tomorrow or how tough it's going to be to win 16 games, you just worry about winning one game and go on from there.
"Not that good teams shouldn't be focused on one game, but I think when you've been lucky enough to go through it and win, you know how hard it is and you know how long it takes, and so even though you're focused on the now, you're hoping that's in your future, I guess."
Whether a team is considered a favorite or not when you're one of 16 teams looking to be the last one standing, the odds aren't in your favor.
"To not win it in four years is not unheard of, but certainly our seasons have ended in different ways over those times," Adams said.
"Ultimately, we want to win just like everybody else. The expectations are high, so it's disappointing for sure. Obviously all 16 teams have a chance. Some teams probably feel like they have a better chance than others. We've felt every year that we had a chance, a legitimate chance."
Defenseman Rob Scuderi grew up in the Penguins organization and was part of the team that won a Cup in 2009 before signing a contract as a free agent in Los Angeles, where he helped the Kings to their first-ever championship in 2012. He re-signed with Pittsburgh in the offseason and conceded that it's easy to be surprised that the team hasn't enjoyed more playoff success.
"Yeah. Given the guys that I played with on the '09 team, you'd think that they're going to be a perennial Cup candidate, but sometimes it doesn't work out that way," Scuderi said.
"It's not easy to win the Stanley Cup playoffs. Just because you have a team on paper that looks like it's going to blow the doors off the Stanley Cup playoffs doesn't mean it's going to happen. It's not easy to win. It's hard. You've got to come together at the right time and you've got to come together for a long time. As much as you'd think that this team would have had more wins, it's not shocking. It's a hard time of year to win."
Sometimes it's harder to win when the belief is that it's going to happen.
"This team has had the weight of expectation on them for a long time," Scuderi said. "It's something you have to just learn to deal with. Those are mostly just kind of outside sources putting the pressure on you. You just have to be able to shut it out and be able to play your game. The most important thing is the guys in this room. Nothing else really matters. If we're able to not think about the weight of expectation but enjoy the game and have some fun winning at the hardest time of year and the most rewarding time of year, it makes it a lot different."
It's not going to get any easier, either.
Head coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged Tuesday that the further the 2009 Cup win recedes in the team's rearview mirror, the higher the pressure is to reverse the recent trend of postseason disappointments.
"I don't think there's any question that it does," he said.
"Our goal here and focus is to win a Stanley Cup, and we've had good teams and good opportunities to do that and it's not been the case."
The Cup-winning spring is now more "a distant memory" than something else, the coach said.
"The farther you get away, I think there is more pressure to step forward and win hockey games and win a Stanley Cup here, especially with the team we have," Bylsma said.
And so what happens this spring is, of course, unknown.
It is so in 15 other NHL cities as we await the puck drop on the first games of the postseason carnival on Wednesday evening. But hockey observers around the league have told ESPN.com they think the Penguins will make significant change if there is another disappointing exit short of the Stanley Cup finals.
For instance, what is the future for Fleury, who was lifted before Game 5 of the opening-round series against the New York Islanders last spring in favor of veteran Tomas Vokoun, if Fleury can't regain the form that saw him win 30 postseason games in 2008 and 2009?
In short, there isn't likely to be one.
What of Bylsma?
There were rumors that the sweep at the hands of the Bruins last spring might spell the end for Bylsma, who won the Cup before he'd been on the job four months after taking over for Michel Therrien in February 2009. But GM Ray Shero held firm, and Bylsma, the head coach of the U.S. Olympic team, has done an admirable job of keeping his injury-ravaged team on track en route to a Metropolitan Division title.
Still, hard to imagine he survives an early or less than graceful exit from the postseason.
What other roster modifications would follow another disappointment?
On the elevator doors leading from the street to the Penguins' locker rooms and the Consol Energy ice level is a new playoff logo: "Buckle Up Baby."
That sums things up pretty nicely.