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Penguins' long trip has one step remaining

Tuesday, 05.20.2008 / 9:00 AM / Journey to the Cup

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer


It took only until the third year of the Sidney Crosby Era for the Pittsburgh Penguins to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Pens win East
Three years ago they were the worst team in hockey.

Eighteen months ago the moving trucks were close to hauling the Penguins out of Pittsburgh all together.

Today they're in the Stanley Cup Final.

Talk about time travel!

It took only until the third year of the Sidney Crosby Era for the Pittsburgh Penguins to reach the pinnacle of greatness, and it took the Penguins only 14 games in the first three rounds of the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs to get there.

The Penguins dispatched the Philadelphia Flyers, their cross-Commonwealth rivals, in five games to win their first Eastern Conference championship since Mario Lemieux and Co. swept away the Boston Bruins for the title in 1992.

Lemieux then led Pittsburgh to a sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final, but these Penguins aren't envisioning anything like that when the NHL's championship round begins.

"Whoever we're going to play against, one thing we know we're going to play against a good hockey team, but we figure we're a good hockey team as well," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said moments after clinching the Eastern Conference title with a 6-0 win over Philadelphia in Game 5. "I know we're going to be well prepared."

The Penguins' resurgence was supposed to begin when they won the right to select Crosby. While that has proved to be the case, the road they traveled to reach the Stanley Cup Final nearly led them right over a cliff and into the Alleghany River.
   
The Penguins were horrible to start the 2005-06 season. Coach Eddie Olczyk was fired just 2½ months into the season, replaced on Dec. 15 by Therrien. Leading scorer Ziggy Palffy, a brand new free-agent acquisition, retired midseason as the team's leading scorer due to a lingering shoulder problem. A little over a month after the coaching change, Lemieux announced his second and final retirement.

The Penguins finished with just 22 wins and 58 points despite Crosby's 102-point season.

When the season ended, GM Craig Patrick was fired after 17 years on the job that produced a pair of Stanley Cup championships.

And to top it all off, there were lingering ownership problems and doubts of the Penguins' future in Pittsburgh.

Needless to say, things were looking pretty bleak from an outsider's perspective, but inside the dressing room, the Penguins only were getting started.

Youngsters like Crosby, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, forwards Ryan Malone, Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen and Maxime Talbot, and defensemen Ryan Whitney, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi were just starting to gel together.

A year later, young studs Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, and veterans Gary Roberts and Jarkko Ruutu were added to the mix.

While these new Penguins were making their way to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where they eventually would lose in five games to the Ottawa Senators, Lemieux was solidifying the ownership situation.

On March 13, 2007, an agreement was put in place for a new $290-million arena. Six months later a lease was signed to keep the team in the city until at least 2040.

"Mario plays a big part in the team," Malone said. "We all look up to him still. He's always led by example, and I think he's passed that along to a lot of guys."

Still, the Penguins had to keep their end of the bargain and continue to get better. They did just that, proving they can win without Crosby, who missed 28 games in the second half of this season with a high-ankle sprain. Malkin stepped up and became a Hart Trophy finalist.

In the meantime GM Ray Shero, who replaced Patrick, made some stunning deals at the deadline. He gave up Armstrong, Christensen, 2007 last year's first-round pick Angelo Esposito and a 2008 first-round pick for Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis. He also got defenseman Hal Gill from Toronto for a pair of picks.

When Crosby returned, Hossa and Dupuis joined him on a line. With Malkin, Malone and Petr Sykora, an offseason free-agent acquisition, also forming a line, the Penguins' scoring was equally distributed among their top six forwards.

"When I started playing a few games I saw how much speed we had," said Hossa, who was injured in his first game as a Penguin and missed six straight games. "Speed kills, you know? We have to use it because we have lots of it."

With Gill on the back end, the Penguins also had the dominant penalty killer and shut-down defender they were craving.

"He almost just wraps around guys, just hovers over them and there is nowhere they can go," Whitney said of Gill. "He really has changed the team from the defensive standpoint."

On April 2 the Penguins clinched the Atlantic Division title, their first in a decade. A week later they won their first of four straight against the Senators, exacting revenge on last year's Eastern Conference champions.

They then beat the New York Rangers in five games, and won both the Eastern Conference and the Pennsylvania State Hockey titles in five games over the Flyers.

Crosby, maligned early in the playoffs for what was considered his lack of "dominance," finished the first three rounds as the League's leading scorer with 21 points. Malkin and Hossa each have 19 points so far.

Fleury, maligned heading into the playoffs for his lack of postseason success dating back to his days in the QMJHL, finished the first three rounds with a 1.70 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage.

"He's my MVP for our team," Talbot said of Fleury.

Defenseman Sergei Gonchar, maligned heading into this season for what was perceived to be his lack of commitment on the back end, has been the leader of the League's best defense. He has 11 points and is a plus-4 in the postseason.

"I think he should be up for the Norris (Trophy)," Whitney said of Gonchar.

Three years after winning the draft lottery, two years after the worst season in franchise history and one year after getting blitzed by the Senators in the first-round of the playoffs, the Penguins are four wins away from greatness.

"We realize we've got a tough test in front of us still, but our goal wasn't to get there," Malone said. "Our goal is to get the whole thing done."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.



Quote of the Day

It's always a little bit weird, but it moves on. They've got a good team, and they played well tonight. I think that's just part of it.

— Peter Laviolette on facing his former team (Flyers) for the first time since his departure