Despite the passage of a year, the memories of losing the 2008 Stanley Cup Final to Detroit were still raw for the Penguins. The young and blossoming Penguins ran into the veteran Red Wings machine.
Pittsburgh miraculously avoided elimination in Game 5 with a dramatic triple overtime affair. But it only delayed the inevitable as the Red Wings would hoist the Stanley Cup following a Game 6 victory in Pittsburgh.
A year later, that young Penguins team had grown so much from that experience. And they would need every bit of that experience in a rematch with those same Detroit Red Wings in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.
"I think we felt way more ready. I think we knew what to expect," captain Sidney Crosby said. "We were much more comfortable and at ease with being in that situation."
There was also some fresh blood in the Penguins' lineup as players like Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, Ruslan Fedotenko and Matt Cooke had not gone through the same baptism by fire the season prior.
"It was good that there were some guys around that weren't there the year before," Guerin said. "Because we didn't feel the heartbreak against Detroit. To us, it was just Detroit."
It wasn't just Detroit. The Red Wings team that steamrolled to a Cup in 2008 added the most lethal sniper in free agency in Marian Hossa, who chose Detroit over remaining in Pittsburgh. A snub that the Penguins wouldn't soon forget.
"That gave a little flame in us," forward Max Talbot said. "(Hossa) doesn't believe in us. Well, we'll believe in ourselves and prove him wrong."
However, with all the talk that this time around things would be different for Pittsburgh, the first two games provided much the same.
Detroit's Johan Franzen scored with under a minute to play in the second period of Game 1 to give the Red Wings a lead that would stand. Evgeni Malkin scored the opening goal of Game 2, but Detroit responded with three unanswered goals to take a 2-0 series lead.
Pittsburgh now had the daunting task of needing to defeat Detroit in four of the next five games if it were to capture the Stanley Cup. Which made Games 3 and 4 in Pittsburgh both must wins for the Penguins.
"We were younger, faster and got experience from the year before so we were a lot more confident," defenseman Kris Letang said. "Even if we lost those two games we knew we played better. It was just a question of time before we were going to (break) through."
"We were in that situation in Washington going down 2-0," Crosby said. "It was very similar. We thought we played two good games, good enough to win and didn't happen. We just stuck with things like in Washington, and believed in the way we played."
The Pens took the play to the Red Wings from the drop of the puck in Game 3. And the sea of white in the crowd exploded when Talbot opened the scoring just five minutes into the game. But the Red Wings punched back with two goals to take a 2-1 lead.
The circumstances were getting dire for the Penguins, already down 2-0 in the series and now trailing 2-1 in Game 3. But late in that first period Letang scored a power-play goal to tie that game at 2-2.
The Pens goal was under siege for the entire second period as the Red Wings relentlessly pursued the lead. Despite being completely overwhelmed, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury denied Detroit and all of 14 of its shots in the middle frame.
The score remained deadlocked as the clock ticked down to the halfway point of third period as the teams traded opportunities. To the thrilled relief of the collected masses, defenseman Sergei Gonchar broke that tie with a power-play goal. Talbot chipped in an empty-netter for insurance as the Pens prevailed, 4-2, to keep their dimly lit hopes flickering.
"That was just holding serve," defenseman Hal Gill said. "It would have been a quick series if we had lost that one."
The 2008 and '09 Cup Finals had the same results through the opening three games. But Pittsburgh was ready to flip the script on last year. And the way to do that would be to win Game 4 to even the series, unlike the previous season when they fell desperately behind 3-1.
Malkin scored early in the game with a rebound tally on the power play. But despite the early lead, the Red Wings assaulted the Penguins net, putting up 19 shots in the opening frame. Thanks to Fleury, only one shot found its way through.
Detroit put the pressure on again with a goal 46 seconds into the second period to take a 2-1 lead, just as it had in Game 3. And just like that previous contest, the Pens responded in the direst of circumstances.
The Red Wings had a pair of power plays halfway through the second period. They were trying to extend their lead and take a stranglehold on the game.
Pittsburgh killed the first power play. But had a full two minutes still to kill. The Penguins hoped to come out of that sequence by maintaining a one-goal deficit. But the outcome turned out even sweeter.
Jordan Staal took a pass in the neutral zone with speed. He carried the puck around Brian Rafalski and cut to the net. Staal managed to pull the puck from his backhand to his forehand and snapped off a shot that beat goaltender Chris Osgood.
The shorthanded tally tied the game at 2-2 and ignited the Penguins. Pittsburgh responded with two more goals in the next 5:37 minutes. Goals from Crosby and Tyler Kennedy helped Pittsburgh take a 4-2 lead before the second buzzer. That score would stand and Pittsburgh was heading back to Detroit for Game 5 with the series all even at 2-2 and a best-of-three series.
The Red Wings received a boost heading into the pivotal Game 5. Superstar Pavel Datsyuk, who had missed the first four games of the series, returned to the lineup.
Pittsburgh had a great start in the opening minutes of the game. Detroit fought off the Penguins and started to take over halfway through the first period. Datsyuk found a streaking Dan Cleary on a 2-on-2 rush. Cleary buried his shot from just inside the blue line to give the Red Wings a 1-0 lead.
The Penguins had overcome deficits before. But in the second period, the bottom fell out. Valtteri Filppula scored 1:44 into the second period. And the Penguins' frustration led to multiple penalties. Pittsburgh took five minor penalties in the frame, giving the vaunted Red Wings' power play multiple chances to break the game open. And they obliged.
Detroit converted on two quick power-play strikes and had a 4-0 lead before the game was halfway over. Henrik Zetterberg put in the final nail in the coffin late in the second period with yet another man-advantage goal, Detroit's third in 10 minutes of play, to take a 5-0 lead en route to a blowout victory.
"That's just something that you have to turn the page quickly," Crosby said. "We knew that we were playing well at home, and we were confident going home that we could get it back to Detroit."
As the Pens entered the locker room following the game, dejected from the loss, they saw a calming and reassuring presence. Co-owner and Hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux was in the locker room.
"I remember going in and the coaches were disappointed, the team was down, but I thought it's just one game," Lemieux said. "That's what I told (general manager) Ray (Shero), that we're going to go back to Pittsburgh and win Game 6, and come back to Detroit and win Game 7 and win the Cup.
"It was important to stay positive at that time. I do remember that night was tough in the locker room. But in the playoffs you have to look to the next game, win the next game and have a chance to play Game 7, and anything can happen."
The Penguins found themselves in the exact same position as 2008 - facing a potential loss on home ice in the Stanley Cup Final in Game 6. But this wasn't last year.
"It's different this year," Talbot said. "We're in the same situation as the previous year. We sensed it was different. We believed in ourselves a little bit more."
That belief carried over onto the ice. Pittsburgh dominated the first period, outshooting Detroit 12-3 in the process. But for all its efforts the score remained 0-0. That would change early in the second period.
Staal poked the puck around Filppula in the neutral zone and shot up ice for a 2-on-1 with Cooke. Staal opted to keep and shoot. Osgood made the initial save, but the rebound kicked out right back to Staal, who buried his second try to give Pittsburgh a 1-0 advantage just 51 seconds into the middle frame.
The two teams traded scoring chances for the remainder of the second period, but the score didn't change entering the third period. Five minutes into that final period Tyler Kennedy retrieved a puck behind the Detroit goal. He immediately dragged it to the net. After a couple cracks he knocked the puck into the goal.
But Pittsburgh's breathing room was quickly erased. Three minutes after Kennedy's goal, Kris Draper scored on a rebound chance to make it a 2-1 game with 12 minutes to play.
From there, the Pens relied on their franchise goaltender to do his job. Fleury had been pulled late in the second period of Game 5, but was magnificent throughout Game 6, especially in the third period.
Detroit turned up the pressure and Pittsburgh was trapped in its own zone for much of the final minutes of play. The 18,000-plus sold out venue held its collective breath with 1:40 remaining when Datsyuk found Cleary for a breakaway on goal. Cleary, with the game-tying puck on his stick, tried to pull it to the backhand, but Fleury split-out his left pad to make a series-saving stop.
In the waning minutes Fleury received some help from one of his defensemen. As he scrambled to make a save, Fleury ended up face down and out of the crease. Rob Scuderi stuck out his leg and twice stopped Franzen on the doorstep. Fleury was able to recover and the Penguins held on for a 2-1 win.
Scuderi later recounted the play and was trying to say that he was just "a piece of the puzzle," but accidentally said he was "the piece." It was a moniker that his teammates enjoyed and would not let him forget.
But the puzzle thus far added up to one game for the Stanley Cup. It would take place in Detroit's historic Joe Louis Arena. Pittsburgh was looking for payback for the previous season. After watching the Red Wings raise the Cup in Pittsburgh, the Penguins couldn't think of a more appropriate way to finish the '09 series than by raising the Stanley Cup in Detroit.
And the players weren't the only ones with that mindset.
"This is a chance of a lifetime to realize your childhood dream to win a Stanley Cup. Play without fear and you will be successful!! See you at center ice. Mario."
That message was sent from Lemieux via text to the entire team on the morning of Game 7. And its impact was palpable (for the full story behind the text message click here).
"I don't think I slept so I probably saw it right away," Crosby said. "It's Game 7, there are so many nerves. You know that someone's winning the Cup that night. And I think just to get that, it bred confidence among the group."
"There are no words to describe how that text message got us going," Talbot said. "He's such a big influence on all of us at that time and all hockey players that ever played the game. Showing that he believed in us, there was only one game to play. If we leave everything on the ice, he'll be out there on the ice lifting the Cup with us."
"We were ready to run through a wall after reading that," Guerin said.
Following the morning skate, reporters interviewed all the players in the Penguins locker room. One of the questions was who would be the hero that evening. One player put the onus on himself.
"I remember in the morning a couple interviews, scrums, media all over and I had (someone) ask me who do you think is going to be the hero tonight?" Talbot said. "And I remember saying I like to think it's going to be me."
There is no bigger stage in the hockey world than a Stanley Cup Final Game 7. An entire season comes down to a mere 60 minutes. Every play and split-second decision could be the difference between being a champion or a failure. An entire season's worth of highs and lows, triumphs and defeats boiled down to one game. There was no tomorrow. One team would live out a childhood dream while the other would leave the arena with heartbreak.
Crosby and Zetterberg stared each other down and took the opening faceoff to begin the game. Fleury was tested early, but the Penguins found their legs as the period wore on. The period would end with the score remaining 0-0.
The scoreless tie would be broken just 73 seconds into the second period. Malkin forced a turnover in the corner of the offensive zone. The puck trickled onto the stick of Talbot. He carried to the top of the crease and snapped the puck into the netting to draw first blood in the game.
"I knew if I shot right away it wasn't going to go in," Talbot said. "So I dribbled once and shot it five-hole. I'll never forget Malkin's face when he jumped in my arms."
The Penguins carried that momentum and would strike again. Chris Kunitz flipped a puck ahead to Talbot, who had a 2-on-1 rush with Kennedy. Talbot opted to hang onto the puck and ticketed the far top corner for his second of the game to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead halfway through the game.
Talbot dropped to his knees, clenched his fists and screamed.
"I just took my best shot," Talbot said. "I just went on my knees. And that's something really out of ordinary (for me). Like subconsciously knowing that was going to be the game-winning goal."
Fleury shut the door on the Red Wings the rest of the period and the Penguins carried a 2-0 advantage into the final frame. But holding the lead wouldn't be easy. The veteran Red Wings would not go quietly. And Pittsburgh would have to fend off Detroit without their captain as Crosby was injured in the second period and would not return.
The Red Wings brought the pressure. Detroit spent the entire period in the Penguins zone. Finally, Detroit broke through when Jonathan Ericsson scored on a slap shot from the blue line to make it a 2-1 game with 7:07 remaining in regulation.
"Never felt time move that slow," Talbot said of the third period. "They were in our half of the ice for the whole period."
The Red Wings were boosted by the goal, and kept coming and coming and coming. With under three minutes to play, Niklas Kronwall whipped a shot on net that deflected off of the crossbar.
"Honestly, I was nauseous coming down to the end," Guerin said. "The most nervous I've ever been was the last seconds of that period."
That would be the last 6.5 seconds of that period. That was all that stood between the Penguins and achieving their lifelong dream.
What awaited was a defensive zone faceoff and one final gasp from Detroit. Zetterberg won the draw back to Rafalski at the point. He unleashed a slapshot on net. The puck deflected to Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, who was eyeing up an empty net from the lower circle.
"You could see the net was open. You could see it was Lidstrom," head coach Dan Bylsma said. "You were hoping the clock would expire before he gets the shot off."
"It was suspended animation," Mark Eaton said. "You could feel everybody holding their breath on the bench."
Lidstrom's shot beat the clock, but did not beat Fleury. The Pens goaltender slid across on his pads and was able to make an off-balanced save with his left arm. The puck trickled into the corner. The clock hit zero. The mob rushed Fleury in the crease.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were the 2009 Stanley Cup champions.
"It's almost storybook, the way you'd write it," Shero said. "To beat the defending Stanley Cup champions in their home building in Game 7."
Just as Mario had predicted that morning, he met the Pens at center ice and watched as they lifted the Cup.
"Who would have thought in February and being in 10th place we would have won the Cup," Crosby said. "Having gone through this and sharing it with guys, it makes you want it again. It makes you want it even more."
"It was like my dream coming true," Malkin said. "I came to the U.S. and after three years we won the Stanley Cup. I don't have a word to say how amazing the feeling is. You need to believe and you can do anything."
From 10th place to champions. The season was marked the ultimate triumph over adversity. And a moment that can never be taken away from that group of players.
"Coming from 10th place and just catching fire at the right time, It was pretty amazing," Guerin said. "And it was a really special group of guys."
"All I remember is throwing my gloves as high as I can," Talbot said. "Celebrated for a whole summer after that.
"My whole life."