-- There is no hockey disappointment more bitter than losing the Stanley Cup Final.
The Pittsburgh Penguins
lived that nightmare last season, losing a six-game series to the Detroit Red Wings
. But usually growth comes out of such heartbreak.
These Penguins certainly believe that to be the case as they prepare for the Eastern Conference Final, a series against the Carolina Hurricanes
that begins with Monday night's Game 1 (7:30 p.m. ET, Versus, TSN, RDS).
The lessons learned from last spring's grueling climb to the hockey mountain -- one that ended just two wins short of reaching the desired peak -- were the foundation, they say, of the comeback the Penguins fashioned against the favored Washington Capitals
in the second round.
"We've had some challenges and gone through different things," Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby
said after Sunday's practice. "I look back to last year, and pretty much every game we really played well in the playoffs. We found a way to win.
"There have been times in these playoffs where we've played some good hockey and haven't gotten breaks. That can be frustrating and that can force you to change things. But I think we've really stuck by what we need to do to play well and to be successful. And going through those things builds confidence for sure."
Pittsburgh dropped the first two games of the best-of-7 series against the high-powered Caps, but refused to buckle. Instead, they responded by winning four of the next five games -- including a 6-2 rout in the deciding Game 7 -- to advance to their second-straight Eastern Conference Final.
There, they will face the upstart Hurricanes, an unfancied group that has knocked off the first- and third-seeded teams in the Eastern Conference bracket. Certainly the resume of the Cardiac 'Canes is one to be respected, but the Penguins don't care about the opponent that will occupy the other bench Monday night at Mellon Arena.
No, the Penguins sat they believe this is their time -- no matter the opponent. And a powerful offensive attack only boosts their faith.
Crosby has a dozen goals and 21 points in 13 games. Carolina's leading scorer, Eric Staal
, has just 13 points in 14 postseason games. To boot, the Penguins also have regular-season MVP candidate Evgeni Malkin
, who has 19 points this postseason.
Plus, it appears that star defenseman Sergei Gonchar
is ready to go after a knee injury that sidelined him during the Washington series. Gonchar, who makes Pittsburgh's power-play attack gear up to another level, played in Game 7 of the last round and skated Sunday. He is expected to be in the lineup Monday night.
So it is not surprising that Pittsburgh is averaging almost 3.5 goals a game this postseason. Carolina, meanwhile, has managed just 2.4 goals per game.
"If you sit back against this team, they’re just going to tear you apart," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice
said. “So we have to find a way to establish our game. We've got to get to our game early and have a little extra edge, have a little extra snarl. And I think if we have that, we’re going to get our chances and get a better result."
Of course, the Hurricanes believe they can get good results -- even against the high-octane Penguins. It would be silly not to be confident after the upsets they have pulled off, each capped by an unlikely Game 7 victory on the road.
Yet the Penguins know a chance at redemption -- and perhaps a rematch against the Red Wings -- awaits them if they can dispatch of the present opponent.
"What's at stake now -- four games to win to have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup -- is enough to make anyone's emotions rise," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma
said. "So emotion is what's at stake more than it is our past history (with Carolina). But we're starting to make past history right now. The emotions will get high quick."