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Happy days ahead for disappointed Penguins

by John Kreiser

Sidney Crosby is the centerpiece of a young Penguins squad that has brought a lot of hope to the organization. Just a year after finishing second-to-last in the standings, the team took Detroit to six games in the Stanley Cup Final. WATCH Sidney Crosby highlights
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PITTSBURGH -- You can add one more thing to the list of what Sidney Crosby and Wayne Gretzky have in common: Neither won a Stanley Cup on his first try.

Crosby's 27 points tied Conn Smythe Trophy winner Henrik Zetterberg for tops in 2008 playoff scoring, but the Penguins came up short in their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1992, losing in six games to the Detroit Red Wings, who won for the fourth time in 11 years.

Crosby wound up having the same fate in his first Final as Gretzky, who led the Edmonton Oilers to the title round in 1983 only to be swept by the New York Islanders, who won their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup.

Crosby would love to emulate what happened to Gretzky and his teammates after that -- a return trip to the Final the following year, a payback victory over the team that beat them the year before, and four Stanley Cups in the next five seasons.

But for all the disappointment among the Penguins and their fans, there's also the recognition that this team has come a long way from the club that finished 29th among 30 teams just two years ago -- and that the core of the group that carried the Pens to the Final is only going to get better.

"Even when we were struggling two years ago, you could kind of see the pieces forming here -- that we'd be a good team in time, with a little patience," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "To see us mature so quickly has been awesome to be a part of."

The Wings certainly won't be surprised to meet the Penguins again in the Final in the near future.

"There’s no doubt," Detroit center Kris Draper said. "You look at the roster and you look at the age of them, the players that they have. They are certainly going to be a force, for sure. The fan base; the rink was unbelievable to play in. It was a great atmosphere there."

That atmosphere will include a new arena, scheduled to open in two years. By then, the impact of losing the Final may well have translated into a championship -- just as it did for the Red Wings, who lost to New Jersey in 1995 before winning two years later.

The lesson: You have to learn how to win.

"The only thing I can draw from is my first Cup in 1995,” Draper said. "You look at those first couple of years of what we went through, we lost to San Jose, we lost to New Jersey, we lost to Colorado (in the 1996 Western Finals) and then we won a Stanley Cup. A lot of people kind of giving up on the nucleus of the club, but ownership and management thought that we had a nucleus that could win some Stanley Cups.

"They've got a great team over there -- a great, young team."

The first part of the learning process was a five-game blitz by the Ottawa Senators last year that yielded some painful lessons.

"We weren't that thrilled about being pretty much dominated last year in five games by Ottawa," Scuderi said. "You take the positives out of it and try to learn from the negatives. That's what this team has been able to do, and why it's been able to go so far."

GM Ray Shero has done an excellent job mixing and matching talent to build a team that went from the NHL's bottom two to its top two in just two years.

"I think we've been fortunate enough to just have the right pieces," Crosby said of his team's rapid rise. "We have young guys who have been pretty successful early on, we've had a great mix of veterans to lead the way, and especially this year, added some pieces in the trade deadline to help our team as well.

"I think we've tried to fast-track the learning curve as far as the younger guys are concerned. We have great older guys to show the way and a great mix of players."

Crosby is a good starting point for any franchise's future success. At age 20, the youngest captain in NHL history carried his team to the Final and was its best player against the Red Wings. His two goals carried Pittsburgh to victory in Game 3, and he proved that not only can he produce offensively against the NHL's best, but he's also willing to get his nose dirty when the game gets physical. There's no reason he shouldn't continue to improve as he gets stronger and more experienced.

"He's a young player, and yet he's mature beyond his years," an admiring Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "To me, he's been excellent in this series, and very competitive."

His teammates appreciate everything their 20-year-old captain brings to the game.

"He's been awesome," Scuderi said. "Just his drive -- even if it's not going for him offensively, you know he's giving absolutely everything he's got. That's all you can ask from your captain, and he's given that every night since he's put on the jersey."

Having Crosby is a starting point that any franchise would envy. But having Evgeni Malkin to go along with him gives the Penguins a one-two punch of young talent that no one else can match. The 21-year-old Russian struggled in the latter stages of the playoffs and was held to a single goal in the Final. But he's a Hart Trophy finalist after finishing second to Washington's Alex Ovechkin in regular-season scoring -- and, like Crosby, he should only continue to get better.

The big question up front is what will the Penguins do with Marian Hossa? The Pens' big deadline-day acquisition has thrived while playing on the wing with Crosby. At 29, he should have many more productive seasons. The question is where he'll be having them. Hossa is a free agent this summer, and the Penguins may have trouble fitting him in under the salary cap.

Another player they may not be able to keep is power forward Ryan Malone, who had career highs with 27 goals and 51 points while providing goblets of grit up front. The 28-year-old Pittsburgh native is a career Penguin whose father worked for the organization for years. Whether he'll take less to stay with the only team he's ever known is an open question.

An older player who would be missed -- as much for his leadership role as his on-ice contributions -- is 42-year-old forward Gary Roberts, who has indicated he may retire. Roberts has been plagued by injuries and illness for much of the season.

Even if they lose both Malone and Hossa, the Penguins have other youngsters who can step up. Jordan Staal, the No. 2 overall pick in 2006, dropped from 29 goals to 12 but has shown a better all-around game, especially in the playoffs. At 19 (he turns 20 just before the start of the 2008-09 season), he already has the size and talent to be a major force. Veterans like Petr Sykora (28 goals, 63 points) have good years left, too -- and the chance to play with Crosby and Malkin should attract talented support players.

Perhaps the best news for the Penguins has been the way goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has stepped up in the playoffs. Fleury missed much of the regular season after sustaining a high ankle sprain in early December. But since his return, he's been everything the Pens hoped the top pick in the 2004 Entry Draft could be. He played every minute for the Penguins during the playoffs, posting a goals-against average of well under 2 per game with three shutouts.

Fleury showed the hockey world just how much he's progressed with his 55-save effort in Game 5, when his goaltending saved the Pens' season before Sykora's game-winner in triple overtime.

"It just gives you a sense of confidence when your goaltender is that strong," Crosby said of Fleury. "You know he's going to be there to make key saves. And he just gives you that extra boost. It feeds to everyone else and gives you a certain sense of confidence, so we have that especially with him back there."

Defensively, the Penguins are solid, if not spectacular. The late-season addition of Hal Gill gave them an additional physical presence in front of their own net. Sergei Gonchar, known for most of his career solely for his offensive skills, has played his best defensive hockey. The Penguins will look for more from young veterans like Ryan Whitney and Scuderi -- especially if pending free agent Brooks Orpik, another physical presence in his own zone, opts to go elsewhere.

The wild card is 21-year-old rookie Kris Letang, who was benched in favor of 36-year-old Darryl Sydor after Game 2. Letang still has some growing to do, but he's got the type of offensive skills that should thrive with the kind of talent the Penguins have up front, and his defensive game is progressing nicely.

Like Gretzky and the Oilers of 25 years ago, the young Penguins took a tumble and learned a few lessons in their first trip to the Final. But like that Oiler team, they're in position for a bright future.

"There's a young core of guys here," Scuderi said. "We all get along as a group here. It's a nice locker room to be part of -- that's a big reason this team has had success and will continue to have success. There's a good core group of players who aren't just good players -- they're good people."

Coach Michel Therrien was proud of the way his team played and the progress it has made, even though the Pens came up short of the ultimate prize.

"We made big strides in the last two years," he said. "We're going in the right direction with those young kids, and they were surrounded by good veterans. This is a team that's fun to coach, because they have a lot of passion. They want to learn, and they paid the price to try to get better. The future is bright with the young kids."


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