End could be near for this group of Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins' Jordan Staal (L) celebrates with teammate Zbynek Michalek after scoring on the...

Pittsburgh Penguins' Jordan Staal (L) celebrates with teammate Zbynek Michalek after scoring on the Philadelphia Flyers during the first period in Game 4 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarterfinal playoff hockey series in Philadelphia, April 18, 2012. (REUTERS/Tim Shaffer)

Chris Stevenson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:50 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA - The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs has left perennial Stanley Cup favourites like the Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks and the Vancouver Canucks crushed and on the sidelines.

But there is no bigger disappointment than in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins are out at the hands of their bitter rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins got captain Sidney Crosby back from a second bout with concussion issues late in the regular season and looked primed for a Cup run.

Now, after some incredible sloppy defensive play and an inability to stop the Flyers' power play, the Penguins must be left wondering how many more shots this group might have before the inevitable tyranny of the salary cap forces change.

Crosby and third-line centre Jordan Staal will be entering the final years of their contracts whenever next season rolls around.

Staal, the best third-line centre in the league, can be an unrestricted free agent after his next season and will command attention if the Penguins can't find a way to keep him, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the same stable. Staal's cap hit is $4 million.

It could be that Staal will want to move on a to a place where he can move up in the lineup. If the Penguins can't sign him to an extension, they will have to consider trading him at the deadline rather than lose him for nothing.

He was asked after the Penguins were eliminated in Game 6 Sunday if he considered this could have been the last shot for this group of Penguins.

"I don't. I don't wonder about it. I love the guys in this room and I believe in every one of the guys in the room," said the 23-year-old, who led the Penguins in the post-season with six goals and nine points.

"I think we have the character in this room to not give up. We didn't give up in the series and it was too bad we still came up short."

One area it looks like the Penguins need an upgrade is on the blueline. They lack a bonafide shutdown defenceman -- that might have helped on the penalty kill, huh? They are committed to Paul Martin ($5 million cap hit) and Zbynek Michalek ($4 million), who both had their ups and downs this season, for the next three years.

The Penguins defence as a group did not fare well against the Flyers in front of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who was inconsistent. He was brilliant in Game 5, but looked out of sorts in Game 6.

"They played really, really well and we didn't play very well for three games," said Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik. "There's obviously a lot of regrets in the room and stuff that you can't take back. You can't change the outcome of the first three games. I think if we played really well for three games and we were down 3-0, it would have been a little easier to swallow, but when you look back at a number of things that could have been done better, that's what's a little harder to accept.

"I don't want that taken the wrong way. They were a lot better then us for four games."

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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