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Bumps in the road nothing new to Penguins

by Dan Rosen

Rallying back to win the fifth-longest game in Stanley Cup Final history was the latest achievement for the youthful Pittsburgh Penguins, whose season has been filled with obstacles they have had to overcome. 
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PITTSBURGH – Adversity first crept into the Pittsburgh Penguins’ vocabulary this season Nov. 21.

A 2-1 home loss to New Jersey left the Penguins with an 8-11-2 record at the quarter mark of the season. There was talk that coach Michel Therrien’s job was in jeopardy, but most of all there was talk that this team was still not ready for the big time.

“A lot of people when we were 8-11 were saying it’s still too much too soon for this group,” Penguins GM Ray Shero said. “They wrote us off, but we battled through it. It’s a group that stays together and battles to the end.”

Yeah, no kidding.

The Penguins only are alive in the Stanley Cup Final today because they battled to the very end early Monday morning in Detroit.

They were 34.3 seconds away from summer when Maxime Talbot tucked home one of the most important game-tying goals in franchise history. Then it took 49 minutes and 57 seconds of extra time before Petr Sykora’s goal ended the fifth-longest game in Final history with the Penguins on the right end of a 4-3 victory.

Game 6 is Wednesday night back in Pittsburgh (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio) because in Game 5 the Penguins did what they have done best all season. They came out swinging and battled through a heavy dose of counter punches, but still wound up standing in the end.

“There was no panicking,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “We needed a break. We got a break. We got that loose puck around the net when Talbot scored the tying goal. You need breaks to win hockey games and there’s no doubt that yesterday we got it.”

Prior to this series there was a lot of talk about how the Penguins had not yet faced adversity. While that was somewhat true for the playoffs considering they rolled through the first three rounds with a 12-2 record and jumped out to a 3-0 lead in each series, the notion that this team had not yet faced adversity this season is as preposterous as it is false.

Not only did they have that aforementioned slow start to the season, the Penguins suffered a myriad of injuries to important players, including stars Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury as well as grizzled veteran Gary Roberts.

With each passing injury, especially those devastating high ankle sprains that befell Crosby and Fleury, the Penguins grew closer as a team. Other players, most notably Evgeni Malkin and Ty Conklin, stepped up in their new star power roles.

Starting with a 6-5 shootout victory in Ottawa the night after that Jersey nightmare inside Mellon Arena the Penguins went about erasing any doubts from that less-than-average 8-11-2 start with a 39-16-6 finish.

They won the Atlantic Division title in the second to last game of the season and they were an unstoppable force in the Eastern Conference tournament ripping through the Ottawa Senators, the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers.

With all that behind them and in the back of their minds, the Penguins stared summer straight in the eye Monday night and not surprisingly mustered enough resolve to respond and keep hope alive for this amazing spring dream to come true.

“I don’t (doubt) went through my mind,” Talbot said. “I try to be positive all the time and I trust this group in the dressing room. All the guys knew we were going to battle, that we weren’t going to surrender. That’s what we did.”

They did despite blowing a 2-0 lead they had built before the game was 15 minutes old. Pavel Datsyuk and Brian Rafalski each scored in the third period to make it 3-2 Red Wings, a lead they kept until the 19:25 mark of the period.

“The game wasn’t over,” Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said of how he felt when Rafalski scored to take the lead 9:23 into the third. “It’s tough when you lose a lead like that, but the game wasn’t over. The guys showed character coming back.”

They did despite playing with only five defensemen for more than half the game due to Sergei Gonchar’s back injury. Gonchar slid hard into the end boards after Fleury’s dazzling toe save on Mikael Samuelsson with 2:48 left in the second period and suffered from severe back spasms through the end of the second overtime. He was healthy enough to return to the bench in the third overtime and to his point position on the game-winning power play.

“It’s a struggle,” Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi said of playing with only five defensemen, “but you’re trying to save your season so you suck it up for the guy next to you to give yourself a chance.”

They did despite giving up 58 shots on goal and getting only 32 themselves. Fleury was downright brilliant, especially in overtime when he stopped all 24 Detroit shots, including 13 in the first OT and seven in the second.

“Marc-Andre was phenomenal,” Therrien said. “He made key save after key save in overtime, giving us a chance to hang in there. They were pushing the envelope pretty big in the third period and a few times in overtime. He was just phenomenal.

“It is the most tired I’ve ever been after a game,” Fleury added, “but it’s so awesome that we came out with a win.”

They did it in the face of long odds and incredible adversity, but they did it because that’s what this special group of Pittsburgh Penguins does.

“Our whole team just wanted to get to Game 6 and they fought,” Shero said. “We have life and that is great. Our fans are going to be outstanding. I’m very happy for the fans of Pittsburgh to see this Game 6. They deserve it.”

Their favorite team does, too.

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