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|Sidney Crosby and his young Penguins teammates are still in awe that they've been able to turn around their franchise from non-playoff team to Eastern Conference champions in just two seasons.
After finishing with 102 points and winning the Atlantic Division during the regular season, then breezing past Ottawa and the Rangers in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins added another accolade to their season by capturing their first Eastern Conference title in 16 years with Sunday’s 6-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
While that might strike some as a reason for celebration, the Penguins were low-key after putting the Eastern Conference Finals to bed. As far as they’re concerned, their work has only just begun.
“It’s nice to have an Eastern Conference championship, but I don’t think it means much,” said Maxime Talbot, who notched a pair of assists in the Game 5 triumph. “I don’t think when we started the playoffs we were like, ‘Hey, let’s win the East.’ I don’t think that’s a goal of our team.
“Obviously we’re happy, we’re proud of ourselves, but there’s four more games to win and we’ve got to think about that right now.”
Pascal Dupuis, who capped the offensive outburst Sunday with a third-period goal, spurned the already-printed hats and T-shirts that decorated the Pittsburgh dressing room after the game, thinking ahead to the larger task at hand.
“These T-shirts and hats, I got one put on my head out there by somebody and I took it off right away,” said Dupuis, acquired along with Marian Hossa from Atlanta at the trade deadline. “It’s one of those things that you don’t want to touch that, you want the main thing, the big trophy, the Stanley Cup.”
The Penguins won’t know their opponent in the Stanley Cup Final until Monday night at the earliest, if the Detroit Red Wings win, and they might have to wait a couple more days if the Dallas Stars can extend the Western Conference Finals to seven games. That just gives players like Ryan Malone more time to soak in what his team has accomplished.
“We’ll see what happens here with the other two teams battling over in the West,” Malone said in an on-ice interview after Sunday’s game ended. “I don’t know what to say right now – kind of have the goose bumps, excited for the next step.”
A quick rise – Nobody doubted the Penguins had a bright future ahead of them after they drafted Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin joined him prior to the start of the 2006-07 season. Still, the team made rapid strides, going from out of the playoffs just two years ago and then exiting in the first round last year against Ottawa.
Crosby, still only 20 years old and one of the youngest captains in NHL history, couldn’t really explain the meteoric rise by Pittsburgh, but wasn’t surprised by it, either.
“I think we showed guts all year. We faced a lot of adversity. You’ve just got to battle through it,” he said. “Our guys have done a great job of sticking together no matter what happened. We’ve got to continue this here for another round.”
One reason Crosby pointed to for the team’s success is its ability to rely on every last player. The Penguins have dressed 13 different forwards and six defensemen during these playoffs, and they all have at least one point. Ten different players registered points in Game 5.
“Everyone contributed and everyone bought into what we had to do,” Crosby said. “It’s a great game for us.”
Building momentum – Although the Penguins failed to close out the Flyers in Game 4 at Philadelphia, coach Michel Therrien thought the beginnings of their Game 5 victory started there. After falling behind 3-0 in the opening period, the Penguins made the Flyers sweat thanks to a pair of Jordan Staal goals in the third.
“We didn’t play our best game. We didn’t deserve to win that game, and for the first half of the game I don’t think we were sharp. Our focus was not there,” Therrien said. “But we finished the game like we were supposed to play. We brought momentum today. … I thought we set the tone right from the start and we deserved to win.”
It was hard to find any area of the game where Pittsburgh didn’t dominate. The offense struck right off the bat to put Philadelphia behind the eight ball. The defense only allowed five shots on goal in the first period and 21 for the game. Fleury was flawless, recording his third shutout of the postseason.
“We were really sharp defensively. We were concentrating really well defensively, and when there were a few breakdowns, Fleury was outstanding,” Therrien said.
Tough pill to swallow – Had anyone told the Flyers before the start of the season that they would not only make the playoffs but advance all the way to the fifth game of the East final, there would probably have been a lot of ecstatic expressions on their faces.
At this time last year, the Flyers were a solid month into their offseason, having finished last in the League with 56 points, the worst total in the franchise’s proud history. But some smart trades at the deadline last year and during the offseason helped them rally to finish 39 points better and earn the sixth seed in the East.
The Flyers stunned red-hot Washington in overtime of Game 7 in the first round, then needed only five games to send top-seeded Montreal packing in the East semifinals. Getting as far as they did made the way things ended that much tougher, center Mike Richards said.
“We’re extremely disappointed to be out, but we battled our hardest in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s tough going through the playoffs playing the No. 3 seed, No. 1 seed and now the No. 2 seed. It’s disappointing, but it was a good playoff run for us.”
Material from wire services and team broadcast media was used in this report.
Author: Brian Hunter | NHL.com Staff Writer