If there is any lesson to be learned from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2009 season, it’s this: don’t ever bet against them.
That’s the best piece of advice to give anyone regarding the 2009 version of Pittsburgh’s professional hockey club. The team proved that theory once again when they overcame 2-0 and 3-2 series deficits to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final, only to pull out two consecutive wins, the last a 2-1 victory at Joe Louis Arena in the winner-take-all Game 7 Friday night, to capture their third Stanley Cup championship in franchise history.
The storyline for the dramatic seven-game Final wasn’t very different from the rest of Pittsburgh’s season. As usual the odds were stacked against them:
• Only two teams in the NHL’s lengthy history have won the Stanley Cup on the road in Game 7. Make that three.
• Before the decisive Game 7, the Red Wings held an 11-1 record at Joe Louis Arena in the playoffs. Make that 11-2.
• Only one team lost the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final on the road and went on to win the title. Make that two.
• Not since the 1984 Edmonton Oilers had a team lost in the Stanley Cup Final and then won the title the following season. The Penguins followed in their footsteps.
As usual the odds were stacked against the Penguins in the Game 7. And, as usual, the team overcame those odds in the most critical game of the season to triumph and leave Detroit as the 2009 NHL champions.
When captain Sidney Crosby
hoisted the Stanley Cup high above his head at center ice of Joe Louis Arena, it was the perfect end cap to what has been a remarkable – at times rocky, at times magnificent – season.
The 2009 season was an exercise in resilience and the trials and tribulations that come with extreme highs and lows.
Pittsburgh suffered two huge blows before the year even began when it lost its best defenseman and second best offensive defenseman. Veteran and blue line leader Sergei Gonchar was out until mid-February with a shoulder injury, while talented Ryan Whitney couldn’t suit up until late-December after having offseason foot surgery.
Then the Penguins hopped a flight to Stockholm, Sweden, where they opened the season with a two-game dance with the Ottawa Senators. After splitting the two contests, the team returned home to kick start the season.
Pittsburgh caught fire in the first two months, tying for the second-best start in franchise history through 19 games with a 12-4-3 mark. The Penguins even won seven straight games in November.
Then the Penguins hit their lowest point of the year when the team struggled through December and January, plummeting in the standings all the way to the 10th-spot in the Eastern Conference.
Needing new life, general manager Ray Shero made the move to promote Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Dan Bylsma to Pittsburgh as the Penguins’ interim head coach on Feb. 15. With only 25 games remaining in the season and the Penguins five points out of a playoff spot, their postseason hopes were dimming.
But the Penguins caught fire again, and not a minute too late. Under Bylsma’s leadership, Pittsburgh finished an astounding 18-3-4 to end the season and climbed all the way from the 10th seed to the fourth seed, earning home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
Pittsburgh started the playoffs against bitter rival Philadelphia. The Penguins got the better of their cross-state rivals in six games, ending the Flyers season in Game at Philadelphia with five unanswered goals to flip a 3-0 deficit into a 5-3 elimination.
Next up was a star-filled showdown with long-time rival Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin. Pittsburgh dropped the first two games in the nation’s capital and their championship aspirations looked bleak when Game 3 went to overtime.
With their backs against the wall, the Penguins rose to the occasion. Kris Letang
scored the crucial overtime-winning tally and Pittsburgh went on to win the next three games to take a 3-2 series lead. The relentless Capitals forced a decisive Game 7 in Washington after defeating Pittsburgh in overtime in Game 6.
In a hostile environment, the Penguins steam rolled Washington in a 6-2 victory to triumph in the winner-take-all affair. Crosby and Malkin bested Ovechkin and the Capitals in the most entertaining semifinals series in NHL history.
Pittsburgh went on to sweep the Carolina Hurricanes, winning the last game on the road, to advance to Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year.
And of course, Pittsburgh ended its season by overcoming tough odds and adversity to win the Stanley Cup rematch with Detroit.
The victory was sweet revenge for the Penguins. Last season, Detroit edged out Pittsburgh in six games and raised the coveted Cup at Mellon Arena, where the Penguins were powerless to do anything but watch them celebrate.
In the offseason, Crosby filmed a popular television advertisement capturing the moment. There was a picture of the Penguins team looking distraught by their bench after losing that final game. Crosby steps out of the picture and says:
“This is a tough one, getting this close and not winning the Cup. But I know it will make our team even stronger. I never want to be in this photograph again.”
The Penguins were stronger this season, more resilient and, more importantly, they never lost confidence and never stop believing in themselves even when times were really tough.
And this time it was the Penguins who celebrated their championship on Detroit’s ice. This time the Penguins’ photograph was taken on the “Hockeytown” logo at center ice with the team gathered around the Stanley Cup. It was a picture perfect ending to a magnificent season.