PITTSBURGH - Gretzky, Crosby. Messier, Malkin. Oilers, Penguins?
The 1983 Edmonton Oilers, led by the youthful Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, were widely hailed as hockey's team of the future. Cast against the three-time defending champion New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup final, they looked inexperienced and overmatched in the first two games and wound up being swept.
A year later, a transition from old to new took place as Gretzky and Messier led the Oilers to a Stanley Cup in a rematch against the aging Islanders, ending one lengthy reign atop the NHL and beginning another.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, are the first team since the Oilers to return to the Stanley Cup final a season after losing in it. And they're eager to find out if they're ready to make a similar breakthrough - especially if they also get a rematch against the defending champs.
With Detroit holding a 3-1 advantage over Chicago headed into Game 5 of the Western Conference final Wednesday night, the Eastern Conference-champion Penguins were talking as if a rematch against the Red Wings was an inevitability. Detroit has won four Stanley Cups since 1997.
"They're the champs, and they'll be a big challenge for us," forward Miroslav Satan said.
If so, the Penguins believe they'll be much better prepared than they were in 2008, when the Red Wings overwhelmed them in the first two games in Detroit and went on to win in six games. Then, as defenceman Brooks Orpik said, "We didn't know what to expect, it all happened so quick, and we were down 2-0 before we knew it."
Or much like the Carolina Hurricanes were before being swept in the Eastern Conference final by the Penguins, who closed them out by winning 4-1 in Game 4 on Tuesday night. The Penguins went 8-1 in the conference final the past two seasons, losing only once to Philadelphia last spring.
There were numerous signs in the series against the dead-tired Hurricanes that the Penguins are likely to be much more of a challenge in this final, beginning with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury - their best player Tuesday with 30 saves.
Crosby (two goals, five assists in the series) and Malkin (six goals, three assists) are playing like big stars are supposed to play when titles are decided. The two already have more points (56, or 28 each) in three rounds than the 49 they had in four rounds last year, when a visibly tired Malkin was held to two goals in his final 10 games and Crosby had two in his final nine.
The main difference in these Penguins from a year ago is the absence of a Marian Hossa, a top-line winger who can play alongside Crosby and take over a game, yet 38-year-old Bill Guerin (seven goals, seven assists in the playoffs) has a goal in four of his last six games. Hossa to the Red Wings after last year's final, and soon could find himself playing for a championship against the team he spurned.
That the Penguins are the first team since those '84 Oilers to return to the finals after losing in them the previous season isn't a total surprise to the 21-year-old Crosby, who has often been compared to Gretzky. Crosby and Malkin also are being linked to Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, who led the Penguins' 1991-92 Stanley Cup runs.
To Crosby, no such comparisons - to Gretzky or Lemieux - are valid until he wins a Stanley Cup.
"They've won cups and, you know, and we've yet to do that," Crosby said. "So we still have some things to prove.
"It's a compliment, and we'll try to keep playing the same way."
Or the way they have played since mid-February, when former coach Michel Therrien was fired and minor-league coach Dan Bylsma took over. The Penguins are 30-8-4 since then, 12-5 in the playoffs.
Hard to believe these Penguins were in 10th place in the Eastern Conference three months ago, a time span that "seems like another season" to forward Max Talbot.
"It seems so long ago," he said. "But we started playing the right way."
A way that champions play? The Penguins don't know that yet, but Orpik said losing a year ago to a team as powerful as the Red Wings helped teach them what it takes to win.
"We learned a lot ... I think we took a lot away from it," Orpik said. "We didn't know what to expect, but this year is much more of a relaxed feel.
"This year, we're a lot better prepared for everything."