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Crosby and the Penguins will learn valuable lessons from long playoff run

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PITTSBURGH - There were tears in his eyes, a voice that quivered and a heart broken in pieces.

"I haven't experienced a Stanley Cup final loss before. It's not a good feeling," an emotional Sidney Crosby said as he sat in his stall. There would be no news conference on this night. He was too crushed to get up from his stall. His Pittsburgh Penguins lost the Stanley Cup final to the Detroit Red Wings and left Crosby with a pain like no other he's felt in his 20 years.

"Yes, definitely ... definitely," said the Penguins captain.

The 20-year-old superstar centre was the best player on his team in this year's NHL playoffs. Especially in the Cup final when a few of his teammates looked in awe of being on the game's biggest stage.

Crosby put up 27 points (6-21) in 20 playoff games, tied for the playoff lead with Conn Smythe Trophy winner Henrik Zetterberg. Like his fellow Detroit star, Crosby was a consistent performer from the first to the last game of the post-season. He had two goals and four assists in the six-game loss to the Red Wings in the Cup final.

But all that meant nothing Wednesday night. He dearly wanted his first Cup title in only his third year in the NHL. He'll undoubtedly get another shot.

"I hope so, I really do," said Crosby.

Whether his team makes the Cup final a regular venture remains to be seen. The Penguins have a number of unrestricted free agents this summer, including trade deadline acquisitions Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis, winger Ryan Malone, defenceman Brooks Orpik, tough guy Georges Laraque, winger Jarkko Ruutu and veteran forward Gary Roberts.

The 42-year-old Roberts may have played his last game Wednesday night although that decision will wait for another day.

Still, there's a young core still in place. Star centre Evgeni Malkin, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, centre Jordan Staal and defencemen Kris Letang and Ryan Whitney should be around for a few more years. And they learned a valuable lesson with this Cup run.

"We've come a long way in a short period of time," part-owner Mario Lemieux said in a quiet dressing room. "It's always disappointed not to win once you see the Cup this close. But we played a great team and a great organization. And they deserve to win.

"Hopefully this will teach our young kids how to win. And hopefully next time we'll be much better."

Fleury had a sensational playoff, one that signalled the franchise goalie has arrived after being chosen first overall in the 2003 NHL entry draft. His 55-save performance Monday night kept the Penguins alive in the Cup final. The Penguins are set in goal.

"The whole playoffs he's given us a chance to win every night," said Lemieux.

Malkin had a breakout regular season, earning him a nomination for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, but his performance in the Cup final wasn't up to his standards. He was limited to one goal and two assists in six games against Detroit and finished the post-season with two goals and three assists in his last 10 games.

"At the beginning of the series, I didn't play my best games. I was pretty nervous," Malkin said through an interpreter. "I didn't know what to expect. At the end I started feeling better and better."

In his defence, he was sick with the flu at the beginning of the final.

"Yes, at the end of the Flyers series and the beginning of the Detroit series I was a little bit sick," said Malkin. "But I don't think it was a major factor with my game."

He did come on late in Game 5 on Monday and was outstanding throughout Wednesday in Game 6, scoring his first goal of the final.

But it was too little, too late. The Cup final loss stings for Pittsburgh, but the reality is that the Penguins have come a long way from being the league's doormat in 2003-04 and 2005-06.

"We've come a long way. But that doesn't make this any easier," said Crosby.

Lemieux also helped save the team from relocation when his group was able to negotiate a deal with the city to build a new arena, which begins construction next month.

The Penguins have a bright future on and off the ice.

"Obviously Mario and his group, keeping the team here, and the new rink coming and the franchise-type players and the youth they have here, and marquee names to sell a franchise, it's a great situation," said Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock. "And the people are excited about their team.

"And I think it's fantastic for them. They had really great teams here for a number of years. Things weren't so good for a while. And it's great to see them back and the city looking like it does."

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