The 2008 Stanley Cup finals have been billed as a battle between youth and experience, and the Penguins aren’t the ones leaning on the latter. Led by 20-year-old captain Sidney Crosby, 21-year-old Hart Trophy candidate Evgeni Malkin, and 23-year-old goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, games of this magnitude, and overwhelming media attention is uncharted territory.
Crosby, who has been in the center of hockey’s attention since middle school, said that ignoring the media hoopla and having the right mental outlook at the time of the opening face off comes easier due to playing in big hockey stages like the World Juniors and the Memorial Cup.
“You know, it's not too difficult,” Crosby said. “You know when you have this great of an opportunity and you realize how far you've come. You don't want to waste it because your focus is elsewhere.
“I think for me personally, I try to draw on those experiences, and see what worked and what didn't. But the main thing is you just gotta focus on what you have to do and not trying to change anything.”
The Penguins skated at Joe Louis Arena for the first time all season on Saturday morning, taking a short skate before heading back to their hotel. When asked about his decision to practice in Pittsburgh on Friday, coach Michel Therrien said that he was looking to keep things consistent for his young squad.
“I’m not a big fan to change preparation, the way we do things,” Therrien said. “It’s always been like this. We’re not going to change because we’re in the Stanley Cup playoff.”
The Penguins appeared calm during practice, with many of the players talking and laughing. Ryan Whitney and George Laraque were the first on the ice. Malkin, who has nine goals this postseason, was yelling in excitement when he scored, and in frustration when he couldn’t beat back-up Ty Conklin
on a tip-in and a rebound. Veteran defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Darryl Sydor fired pucks off the end boards to get a feel of the JLA boards, while center Max Talbot relaxed after practice with a tape ball fight.
“We’re a loose group, we have a bunch of guys that like to have fun,” Whitney said. “We’ve known each other for a long time, we’ve been together for a lot of tough times, it seems, and that just makes this that much sweeter. Guys are just enjoying it and having a good time.”
Whitney said the nerves are starting to set in, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Yeah, I mean it’s exciting,” he said. “I think everyone kind of always dreams of being here, and yesterday with the media day, the team last night we just got to hang out. I think tonight everyone will be a little nervous and excited, but that’s always good, people seem to play better when they’re a little on edge.
“I think that its starting to hit you now, with all the media and all the hype surrounding the series, it’s cool you’ve got friends and family calling you, you realize everyone’s really watching the series, it’s the last one obviously, and it’s really exciting.”
Fleury, who has backstopped the Penguins to 4-0, 4-1 and 4-1 series wins over Ottawa, New York Rangers and Philadelphia, said he got some good rest on Friday.
“I slept really good,” Fleury said. “Maybe once I’m on the ice, and we get started for real, then maybe a couple of butterflies, I think.”
Marian Hossa, the centerpiece of Pittsburgh’s trade deadline splash in a deal with Atlanta that also brought forward Pascal Dupuis, acknowledged the star power that will clash when the puck drops.
“This is a great challenge,” Hossa said. “You have two great teams facing each other and there’s lots of offensive power, lots of future hall-of-famers, what else do you want? This is great to be a part of.”
Playing in a legendary building like Joe Louis Arena was not lost on the Penguins, many of whom have only skated here a few times.
That’s not the case for right winger Adam Hall, however. The 27-year-old, who was born in Kalamazoo, Mich., captained the Michigan State Spartans during the famous ‘Cold War’ game in 2001.
“It’s a lot of fun to be in this place,” Hall said. “Obviously when I played for Michigan State we had a lot of success here in GLI tournaments and the CCHA playoffs, so it’s like I said, it’s nice to be familiar with the place. It’ll be nice to get the parents and some siblings and some relatives coming, it’s always good to have that support in the stands.”
Crosby also commented on the fact that both of the arenas in this series have a lot of history. Mellon Arena, the home of the Penguins, is the oldest arena in the NHL.
“It’s not too often you come to a historic place like this,” Crosby said. “I think everyone enjoys being here, and we grew up watching some of the teams that have won here. There’s not too many older buildings left, and to be here and at the Mellon, it’s pretty unusual.”