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Penguins adjusted, became sum of their parts

Moving on to Stanley Cup Final against Sharks thanks to in-season changes to personnel, style

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby's stall in the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room, located at the top of a three-quarters oval, is situated in such a way so he can see everything and everyone. It's the perfect position for the captain of a team, the leader of a room, the face of a franchise.

Crosby sat there late Thursday, after the Penguins finished off the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to book a date with the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final. He sat there looking near and far and side to side at the commotion going on around him, at the media members moving back and forth, wave after wave of them going up to his teammates for sound bites and quotes and information about how they got it done.

Crosby sat there and just smiled. Big, wide and proud, a smile seven years in the making.

"It hasn't been easy," Crosby said at the press conference podium a little while later.

If it was, the picture in front of him in the dressing room wouldn't have been as great.

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm7: Penguins receive Prince of Wales Trophy

What a sight it must have been to Crosby. What a sight it must have been to see rookie forward Bryan Rust, who scored each Pittsburgh goal in Game 7, being engulfed by reporters. What a sight it must have been to see his boss, former landlord and Penguins great Mario Lemieux go up to Rust, shake his hand and congratulate him. What an experience that must have been for Rust.

Crosby and the Penguins are four victories from winning the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2009. Players and teams wait way longer than seven years to get another chance. Some don't get one at all.

But don't blame Crosby if these seven years, filled with career-threatening concussions and coaching changes and management changes, felt like an eternity.

"Having gone through a couple of those early on, 20 and 21 years old, playing the Final, I think you have more of an appreciation for it now," Crosby said. "Just love the opportunity to be able to get back."

The best thing about Crosby and the Penguins is how they made their return. This is a new group with a new coach that had to set a new standard for how this team needed to play.

The Penguins were slow at the start of the season, so they weren't good. They gradually became faster after Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench for Mike Johnston on Dec. 12. They established a style that fit the pieces they either had or eventually would acquire.

They went 33-16-5 after Sullivan took over, an impressive record that grows in stature when you consider they lost the first four games he coached. They were 14-2-0 in their last 16 games of the regular season, including 15 without Evgeni Malkin. They're 12-6 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It's all because they play fast and get contributions throughout the lineup. The blueprint was on display in Game 7.

The Penguins smothered the Lightning and outshot them 39-17 to finish the series with a 269-179 advantage in shots on goal.

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm7: Rust accounts for Pens' offense in Gm7

"That effort was the best we had over the whole playoffs," Pittsburgh forward Patric Hornqvist said.

Rust, a call-up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League this season, had three goals in Games 5-7.

"I was just kind of hoping to make an impact here and I guess this is how it happened," Rust said humbly.

Rookie goalie Matt Murray, who turned 22 and also was a call-up from the AHL, made 16 saves on 17 shots. In mid-March, nobody thought he'd be the starting goalie. Marc-Andre Fleury was injured March 31, and now nobody thinks Murray will ever give back the net.

"I'm just trying to enjoy myself and stay in the moment and appreciate the moment," Murray said. "That third period was the most fun I've had playing hockey."

The Penguins are having a blast now because it's not just a handful of players who are making it happen.

To win this season, they figured out that they needed more than just Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel to carry them. The best teams are carried by everyone they've got.

The Penguins needed veteran role players like Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr to chip in however they could.

Kunitz did in Game 7, making the big play to set up Rust for the first of his two goals.

"We did a great job of becoming a certain style of team," Kunitz said. "We grew as a group. We learned through our struggles. I think that's our biggest thing. We came out better on the back end. We played our best hockey because of the things we went through earlier in the year."

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm7: Murray denies Sustr, Kucherov

To overcome, they needed positive contributions from unsung defensemen like Ben Lovejoy, Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin and the resilient Olli Maatta, who was excellent in Games 5, 6 and 7 after being a healthy scratch for Games 2, 3 and 4 because he was bad in Game 1.

They needed Hornqvist's tenacity, Carl Hagelin's speed and Nick Bonino's intelligence.

They became a team that relied on speed, which is what made players like Rust and fellow rookie and AHL call-up Conor Sheary so valuable.

"We believe that everything is about us," Lovejoy said. "We wanted to be perfect for 60 against [the Lightning]. We were close."

And so Crosby got a rare opportunity to sit at his stall and just stare out at his kingdom. He looked around and saw almost every one of his teammates talking to someone, being congratulated for something. They all played a role. They're not done yet.

"We know the biggest challenge is ahead of us here, but we've got a great opportunity," Crosby said. "It wasn't easy getting to this point, so it would be great to finish off the right way."

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