Pittsburgh's 2009 Stanley Cup championship season really began in late May of 2008. That's when the young, upstart Penguins met the juggernaut Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final.
Pittsburgh's rebuild came quickly as the club, powered by the star talents of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Sergei Gonchar and Marc-Andre Fleury, won the 2007-08 Atlantic Division title. The team added to its spoils at the NHL's trade deadline with the acquisition of All-Star Marian Hossa, the biggest prize on the market.
The Penguins steamrolled the competition in the Stanley Cup playoffs, besting Ottawa (4-0), NY Rangers (4-1) and Philadelphia (4-1) in route to a showdown with the powerful Red Wings, who had won 54 games and 115 points to win the league's Presidents' Trophy.
Pittsburgh's magical run had a rude awakening as the Red Wings overpowered the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup, 4-2. And they did so, on Pittsburgh's home ice at Mellon Arena.
"It was devastating looking back on it," captain Sidney Crosby said. "It was probably the worst I've ever felt after a loss. You're young, everyone is telling you how hard it is to get there. You think, 'geez, I may never get a chance to get back here.'"
"Losing in the Stanley Cup Final is the worst feeling you could ever have because you worked so hard," Max Talbot said. "You can taste it. You can feel it. It's right in front of you. And in the end, you're not the winner. You're a Stanley Cup Finalist, and to me that doesn't really mean anything."
To add more insult to injury, that summer Hossa and goaltender Ty Conklin defected in free agency. Not only did they opt not to remain in Pittsburgh, but both signed with Detroit.
"That gave a little flame in us," Talbot said. "(Hossa) doesn't believe in us. Well, we'll believe in ourselves and prove him wrong."
Adversity struck the Penguins before the 2008-09 season even began. Gonchar, the team's undisputed leader on the blue line and power-play quarterback, suffered a shoulder injury that would keep him out of the lineup for five months. Ryan Whitney, another key member of the defense corps, was out until late December following offseason surgery on his left foot.
The Penguins began the season in Stockholm, Sweden against Ottawa. Pittsburgh kicked off the season with a 4-3 overtime win on Tyler Kennedy's goal.
But the highlight of regular season occurred in November when the Pens traveled to Detroit for a Stanley Cup rematch against their former teammate Hossa. Crosby opened the scoring, but the Pens fell behind 3-1. It was a wild finish that would mark this game.
When Henrik Zetterberg scored a power-play goal five minutes into the third period, Pittsburgh trailed 5-2. Tallies by Malkin and Staal pulled the Pens within one goal, 5-4. Jiri Hudler expanded Detroit's lead to 6-4. But the Pens were not deterred. Staal's second goal of the night with 4:09 remaining in regulation made it a one-goal game.
Staal completed a third-period hat trick with 23 seconds left in the game to even the score, 6-6, and force overtime. In the extra session, Staal stole the puck from Pavel Datsyuk and entered the Detroit zone on a 2-on-1. He fed Ruslan Fedotenko for the game-winner, 7-6. It may have only been two points in the standings, but the win was a message to the Red Wings. An improbable comeback, and an omen of things to come.
However, following that win, the Pens' season started to sputter. A tough December led to a five-game losing streak into the new year. On Jan. 5 the Pens, following a 4-0 loss to the NY Rangers, fell out of a playoff position.
"For whatever reason we couldn't get our game in order," Crosby said. "Then you start to lose confidence as you lose games. That doesn't bring a good feeling to the rink. It's hard to get out of that rut."
In mid-February, the Pens slipped to 10th place. The course of the season changed on Valentine's Day at Toronto. Despite having a 2-1 lead, Pittsburgh surrendered two goals in 19 seconds in an eventual 6-2 loss to the Maple Leafs.
That was when general manager Ray Shero made a change. Head coach Michel Therrien, who had led the club to the Stanley Cup Final just nine months prior, was relieved of his duties. Pittsburgh tapped Dan Bylsma, the head coach of Pittsburgh's American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, to take the reigns.
"It was necessary. We couldn't get momentum any way, for whatever reason," Crosby said. "We had a coaching change, and sometimes you need to spark the group."
While Therrien stressed discipline and structure, Bylsma injected a new attacking mentality into his team, a more offensive and aggressive approach.
"Dan came in and it was a different energy," defenseman Kris Letang said.
Bylsma, the youngest coach in the league at 38 years old at the time, didn't just change the team's approach on the ice, but also the culture in the locker room. Bylsma's upbeat and enthusiastic attitude was far different from Therien's heavy-handed approach.
"Michel showed us how to be professional, how to be demanding of ourselves and each other," Talbot said. "He paid with his job. Dan Bylsma gets there and he's a totally different guy, totally different vision and the way he was coaching."
The blend of Therrien's structure and responsibility coupled with Bylsma's aggressive mentality turned out to be a perfect cocktail for success.
"When we came in on Feb. 15 the main focus wasn't changing the system, but getting the mindset to be more aggressive," Bylsma said. "Force teams to deal with our skill and our speed. The amazing part is the guys in that room bought in so quickly."
The coaching change wasn't the only thing that snapped the Pens back to life. Gonchar returned to the lineup for the Penguins. But it was two late-season acquisitions that really helped solidify the group.
Pittsburgh added veteran sparkplug Chris Kunitz from Anaheim in exchange for Whitney. And on trade deadline day, Pittsburgh added 38-year-old veteran Bill Guerin from the NY Islanders. Both men had previously won Stanley Cups.
"(Guerin) brought a really good energy, something we hadn't had in a while because we were struggling so much," Crosby said. "(Kunitz), you know the way that he plays. We knew we were adding a character guy that was built for the playoffs. They were two really important guys we added."
Guerin was acquired near the deadline cutoff point in a deal that almost didn't happen.
"It was actually a crazy story because I was supposed to go somewhere else five days before and it just never materialized," Guerin said. "Ray (Shero) ended up calling at the eleventh hour and I was asked if I would go to Pittsburgh.
"I said, 'Yeah, absolutely.'"
With all the new pieces in place, the team began to gel. They knew they had turned a corner following a perfect 5-0 road trip in early March, which included bookend victories against Chicago and Washington. That streak ran their record under Bylsma to 8-1-1 and back into the playoff picture.
"That was definitely the turning point in the season," defenseman Brooks Orpik said of Pittsburgh's 5-0 road swing.
With the shackles off, the Pens' offense exploded. Malkin notched 113 points to win his first NHL scoring title. Crosby meanwhile finished third overall in the scoring race with 103 points.
Pittsburgh would finish the season on an 18-3-4 run that lifted them from 10th place in the Eastern Conference into fourth and home-ice advantage in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"We had come so far in a couple of months," Guerin said. "Dan had come in and done an amazing job with retooling the way the team played, giving the guys a lot of confidence and energy.
"You could see the guys coming together as a team, and we were playing good hockey. You could feel it."