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Growing-up-fast Penguins in Cup finals @NHLdotcom

PITTSBURGH (AP) -Everybody in the NHL knew these Pittsburgh Penguins would be very good, and soon. How could a team with players as young and talented as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal not be?

This good, this soon? This dominating, and this determined to succeed? Hardly.

The Penguins didn't listen to all that speculation that a team built around so much youth needed another year or two to mature, gain experience and become wise with the ways of the NHL playoff world.

With a growth spurt like this, the rest of the NHL must be wondering if they can keep up. The Red Wings, the league's best team during the regular season, will find out if they can when they meet the Penguins in the Stanley Cup finals starting Saturday night in Detroit.

The Penguins, whose core players barely average 21 years of age, blew through the Eastern Conference playoffs with only two losses in 14 games. Just as impressively, 10 of the 12 wins were by multiple-goal margins, even though most of these Penguins had previously won only one playoff game during their NHL careers.

Twelve playoff victories in a little more than a month's time. Two years ago, the Penguins won only 22 games during Crosby's rookie season.

"I don't think we had any expectations as far as I was concerned," said Crosby, the youngest captain in NHL history at age 20 when the season began. "I think we did everything in our control as players to have the right attitude and learn as much as we could, as quick as we could. We're lucky to have a mix of guys, with veterans and younger guys, that have really shown they can play, even early on in their careers."

The Penguins never let up after quickly opening a 2-0 lead in decisive Game 5 of the conference finals against Philadelphia on Sunday, winning 6-0 to secure the franchise's first trip to the Stanley Cup finals since 1992.

Putting that in perspective, Staal was 3 the last time Pittsburgh played for the Cup. Sid the Kid really was a kid at 4. Malkin was 5. Fleury was 7.

There's also this to consider: Crosby is playing for the Stanley Cup in his third season, Malkin in his second. Wayne Gretzky didn't do so until his fourth season, Penguins franchise icon Mario Lemieux until his seventh.

"I think coming in here (in 2005), I was just so focused on trying to have a good first year, let alone (thinking about) going to the Cup finals this quickly, with the amount of youth we've had," Crosby said.

The Penguins took Monday off as they awaited the Western Conference winner. Detroit defeated Dallas 4-1 in Game 6 to secure its 23rd trip to the finals; the Penguins are going for the third time. The teams did not meet during the regular season.

Curiously, the last time Pittsburgh reached the finals, when they swept Chicago in 1992, Dominik Hasek was the Blackhawks' backup goalie. Now he's the Red Wings' backup.

The Penguins sped up their learning curve mostly because Crosby, last season's NHL scoring champion and MVP, and Malkin, No. 2 in scoring this season, have been even better than advertised. It's the hockey equivalent of having two LeBron Jameses on the same team.

Crosby has played like a Kid possessed during the playoffs, getting a league-high 21 points while constantly setting up or creating goals in a myriad of ways. He had two assists Sunday, one by lifting up Mike Richards' stick at mid-ice to steal the puck and feed it up ice to Marian Hossa for the goal that made it 3-0.

"He's a great player, and he's not only a one-way player," Hossa said. "Everybody knew how good he was offensively, but he can back-check, he is strong down low in our zone."

The Penguins have allowed only 26 goals in 14 playoff games and have 16 power-play goals to their opponents' seven.

Much of the credit for those numbers goes to Fleury, who shook off a three-month layoff with a high ankle sprain to become the big-game goalie the Penguins envisioned when they drafted him No. 1 at age 18 in 2003.

Despite the injury, Fleury is 26-4-1 since Nov. 21, the night before Thanksgiving, which also is the last time he lost at home. Overall, the Penguins have won their past 16 at home and are 8-0 there in the postseason.

"With the way Marc-Andre is playing, we're approaching every single game with a lot of confidence," coach Michel Therrien said.

But not too much. As forward Max Talbot recalled, Ottawa lost only three games during last season's Eastern Conference playoffs, but was eliminated in five games by Anaheim in the Cup finals.

"I don't think the conference means anything if you don't win the Cup," Talbot said. "They (Ottawa) did so good through the playoffs and then got to the final and lost. What do you remember? You remember only the winner."

The Penguins, as young, fast and talented as they are, may need to win this season for this group to be remembered as champions, as the salary cap likely will prevent them from keeping their current roster together.

With Malkin and Fleury soon due new contracts, and Malkin will want megamillions, the Penguins may not be able to re-sign free agent forwards Hossa and Ryan Malone. Between them, Hossa (nine goals) and Malone (six goals) have been integral parts of the Penguins' Cup run.

Not that Therrien, whose structured and demanding system forces every player to play both ways, is thinking of that. To him, there's still too much to be done, still so much to be won.

"I'm not a big fan of looking at the top of the mountain when there's a lot of steps to be made," Therrien said. "And the next one, it's another step."

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