PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Penguins never stopped believing they could beat the Philadelphia Flyers.
Not when the Flyers won the first three games of their Eastern Conference quarterfinals series. Not when the Flyers raced to a quick lead in Game 4. Not even in the waning moments of Game 6, when an unlikely comeback died in a surprisingly one-sided 5-1 loss.
The Penguins began the playoffs eyeing a second Stanley Cup title in four years. The journey ended before it barely began.
A year ago, the Penguins had excuses when they fell to Tampa Bay in seven games in the opening round. Stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were out. Lightning goaltender Dwayne Roloson played the series of his life. Pittsburgh was worn down after grinding for months without their two superstars in the lineup.
Not this time. Pittsburgh started the playoffs at full strength only to get outplayed and - even worse - outclassed by the Flyers.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was erratic, the special teams were abysmal and the resolve Pittsburgh showed while winning 51 games during the season missing for long stretches.
"We put ourselves in a pretty big hole," Crosby said. "We pretty much had to play perfect hockey to get back in the series and did a pretty good job until today .... Just, when you put yourself three-zero, it's pretty tough to get back in."
Pittsburgh never could. There's a reason only three teams in postseason history have climbed out of 3-0 deficits to win a series. It's tough to win four straight games during the regular season, much less against your arch rival in the playoffs.
As the Flyers celebrated on Sunday afternoon, the Penguins filed slowly to the dressing room to ponder another spring that ended far too early.
The NHL's highest scoring team pumped in plenty of goals against Philadelphia. Pittsburgh found the back of the net 26 times in six games. In most series, that's plenty.
Not this one, where traditional playoff hockey sometimes took a backseat to the kind of offensive explosion normally reserved for the All-Star game.
Philadelphia scored 12 power-play goals in the series, a franchise playoff record. No matter how many defensemen the Penguins dressed or how many adjustments coach Dan Bylsma made, the Flyers had an answer.
"It's not a good feeling and the guys are definitely going to remember this feeling," Pittsburgh center Jordan Staal said. "Hopefully we can take something positive out of it and really do what we can next year."
Staal's sentiments were a familiar refrain throughout the dressing room of a franchise that looked like a burgeoning dynasty not so long ago.
Pittsburgh made consecutive Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, winning it all three years ago behind the spectacular play of Malkin and Fleury.
Three straight springs have produced dismal results. Two years ago, the Penguins fell to unheralded Montreal in the conference semifinals. Last year, the Lightning stormed back from 3-1 down. This time the Penguins ever had the advantage after squandering an early three-goal lead in Game 1.
Now the question becomes how much longer the core will remain intact. Crosby and Staal can become free agents after next season.
Though it's a near certainty the Penguins will do what they can to keep Crosby, they may not be able to afford Staal, who had six goals and three assists against the Flyers and was easily Pittsburgh's best player in the series.
Staal is hardly ready to look too far down the road.
"I love the guys in this room and I believe in every one of the guys in the room," he said. "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."
Something that wasn't supposed to happen for one of the NHL's marquee franchises. Any major offseason moves will likely focus on shoring up a defense that floundered late in the year and was totally exposed by the Flyers.
Either way, the Penguins will have to wait 12 long months to get another shot and spend the next six weeks watching the chase to this year's Cup carry on without them.
"That's hockey sometimes," Crosby said. "You don't always get to achieve the stuff you want to and there's a lot of other teams that want the same thing. It's not a good feeling, but that being said, we've got to find some way to learn from this and be better for it."