At the start of the 2008 season, there weren’t many who would have thought the Pittsburgh Penguins would be the team to beat in the NHL. Sure, they had a huge crop of players and the heroic property represented by Mario Lemieux, but this was a team that was still finding its wings. Budding superstars abound, but making the playoffs and performing respectably was a big goal.
But that was not enough for these pens. They made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, tantalizingly close to putting the finishing touches on the Cinderella story.
The Penguins had a great unit of players. Sure, everyone had heard of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who were fighting for the NHL scoring race. But the likes of Marc Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal were the key to their success in that first taste of play-off success. How quickly the Penguins had emerged from the dark days of 60 lost seasons, to the post-lockout spending spree gone wrong, to almost the best team in the league.
We have seen Cinderella approach and never return to the ball. There was Anaheim in 2004 when they lost to New Jersey in 7 games. That was as close as they came, before lifting the cup with a different roster in 2007. The Buffalo Sabers lost to the Dallas Stars in 1999 and never competed again, dismantling their team in the process. Would the same thing happen to Pittsburgh after losing to the Detroit Red Wings in 2008?
Not even remotely. While every great team that comes to the brink of a championship must be led by tremendous performances of skill and will, Sidney Crosby has an otherworldly glow associated with him. He is the “Next-One” after all, and has been breaking records since before he was in the NHL, or even declared for the draft. Winning a Hart Trophy at age 20, leading a big turnaround story for the Penguins organization, those were already big feats.
But superstars are ultimately measured by team hardware, and that means championships. The Stanley Cup.
After surprising many observers by reaching the Cup final so early, the Penguins were pretty disappointing early in the 2008-09 season. Inconsistent play, poor special teams, and injuries had the Pens reeling, in danger of missing the playoffs, let alone being a contender. A midseason trade behind the bench to bring in Dan Bylsma was an arm jolt they needed.
Sidney Crosby may have finished behind Evgeni Malkin in the league standings, but there was no question where his focus was heading in the “second” season.
First it was the Philadelphia Flyers, and they proved not to be a formidable challenge, especially compared to their much more rowdy series in 2008. The Penguins easily disposed of the Flyers and moved on to Round 2.
That contest turned out to be much more challenging. The Washington Capitals and Alexander Ovechkin awaited them. This was what NHL and hockey fans only dreamed of when Ovechkin and Crosby first entered the league in 2005. How spoiled the hockey gods had been to us to deliver an epic showdown in 2009.
The series went all the way in 7 games, featured heroic and entertaining performances on both sides, but in the end, the courage and determination of the Penguins won. Crosby showed that, above all else, he is committed to winning and isn’t worried about comparing himself to Ovechkin. While Ovechkin is the epitome of Crosby’s robotic demeanor, in a series as close as this one, it all comes down to heart and determination, not just talent.
The Carolina Hurricanes were the semi-final game and were also eliminated without as much stress or fanfare as the Capitals series. Frankly, Canes seemed happy to get this far. But that meant the Pens would face the Red Wings for the second straight year for the Stanley Cup. Talk about overcoming your demons.
The Red Wings have won more than any other organization in the past two decades, and were it not for some early playoff upsets, they would have had a number of mini-dynasties to speak of. Still, the depth and youth of the Red Wings were noted by observers who felt this was setting up as a repeat.
This time, there were 7 finals. A moral victory to be proud of?
How about making history? Captain Sidney Crosby was seriously injured during most of the second and third periods. This must have been devastating for him and the team, but they didn’t let it show. Crosby sat and watched from the bench as Maxime Talbot scored twice and Fleury made a last-second save to win his first Cup.
Sidney Crosby likely has a long way to go in collecting hardware in the NHL. But it’s not just his talent that will take him far. It is his absolute refusal to accept failure at all costs.