PITTSBURGH – There were smiles and pats on the back. But no jumping up and down at the buzzer and certainly no wild celebration in the dressing room.
The Pittsburgh Penguins continue to surprise with their maturity and poise, calmly digesting their latest chapter in what is proving to be a magical season, a 6-0 win Sunday over the Philadelphia Flyers that clinched a Stanley Cup final berth.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Penguins winger Ryan Malone. “So there’s nothing to celebrate, that’s for sure.”
Eastern Conference champion t-shirts and caps awaited the players in the dressing room. The players ignored them.
“We’re not going to wear these shirts or these hats,” said forward Pascal Dupuis. “We want the big prize.”
The big prize was what the Penguins had in mind when they drafted Sidney Crosby first overall July 30, 2005. He was the franchise saviour. Could he have ever imagined he’d carry his team into the Stanley Cup final less then three years removed from that draft day in Ottawa?
“No, probably not,” said the 20-year-old Penguins captain. “I think coming in here I was just so focused on trying to have a good first year, let alone going to the Cup final this quickly with the amount of youth we’ve had. Now you look at the second half of my first year, a lot of our first years, and it was pretty difficult.
“But we’ve come a long way, and we’ve worked hard for it and earned it and this is a great opportunity for us all.”
Crosby had two assists in another strong playoff performance and the Penguins routed the Flyers on Sunday, polishing off their state and divisional rivals in a tidy five games to wrap up the NHL’s Eastern Conference final. Crosby made sure not to touch the Prince of Wales trophy after the game, continuing a long-standing tradition and superstition.
“I’ve watched a lot of Stanley Cup playoff games,” said Crosby. “You don’t see too many guys touch it. A couple of the guys who have been through it before, they all gave me a heads up, for sure. And it’s a good feeling to go up there.
“But we all realized that’s not the one we want to be holding.”
Malone had a pair of power-play goals, Marian Hossa had a goal and three assists while Dupuis, Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin also scored for the Penguins, who return to the Cup final for the first time in 16 years after last winning an NHL championship with Mario Lemieux leading the way in 1992.
“Right now it feels a little surreal,” said Staal, who was three years old when Pittsburgh last reached the final. “The way this team is going, I’m not surprised. And as long as we keep playing our hockey, I think we’ll be good.”
With Lemieux, now a part-owner, watching from his private box Sunday, the young-gun Penguins improved to 12-2 in the NHL playoffs and a perfect 8-0 at home, combining abundant offensive skill with an impressive defensive commitment.
“You always approach the playoffs with a lot of confidence,” said head coach Michel Therrien. “And the confidence that we had is the way that we’ve been finishing the year. The last two months I thought we played some great hockey. Not only offensively, but defensively as well.
“The way Marc-Andre Fleury was playing, too.”
Fleury, another major reason why the Penguins will play for Lord Stanley’s prize, made 21 saves for his third shutout of the playoffs.
The return of top defenceman Kimmo Timonen (blood clot) was not enough to spark the Flyers, who were hoping against hope to make this a series. But the Flyers have much to be proud about, reaching the NHL’s final four just a year after being dead last in the NHL standings, and upsetting No. 1 seed Montreal in the second round. They’ve got a bright future, and future playoff series with the Penguins to play.
“We’ve made tremendous strides this year and we’ve come an awful long way,” said Flyers head coach John Stevens.
The future is now for the Penguins, who await their Western Conference counterpart, Detroit leading Dallas 3-2 in their series with Game 6 Monday night in Texas.
Pittsburgh avoided having its conference final stretched to six games, flying out of the gates Sunday. The Penguins dominated the Flyers in the third period of their failed comeback bid in Game 4 and carried that over to the opening period Sunday, dictating the tempo of play right from the get-go.
“We brought momentum today,” said Therrien. “I thought today we set the tone right from the start. … We were really sharp offensively. We concentrate well defensively. When there were a few breakdowns, Fleury was outstanding.”
Pittsburgh’s fourth line buzzed in the Philadelphia zone on its first shift and drew a hooking penalty to Flyers winger Mike Knuble. The Penguins didn’t waste the early power-play chance, Malone re-directing Crosby’s pass behind Martin Biron for a quick 1-0 lead at 2:30.
The Penguins kept coming in waves, shift after shift, before Malkin doubled the lead to 2-0 at 9:50, scooping a loose puck behind the net and jamming it behind Biron, who was looking to the other side. It was a better effort Sunday from Malkin, who had been limited to one assist in the previous three games and got a little pep talk from head coach Michel Therrien on Sunday morning.
Pittsburgh also imposed itself physically, Jarkko Ruutu steam-rolling Flyers captain Jason Smith much to the delight of the soldout crowd of 17,132 at Mellon Arena.
The Flyers had a push early in the second period but Fleury was up to the task, his pad save on Scott Hartnell from point-blank range four minutes in to ignite chants of “Fleury, Fleury.”
Then No. 87 provided more magic, and set up the goal that broke the Flyers’ back. First Crosby stole the puck in the Penguins zone away from Richards and began a counter-attack rush that culminated with him setting up a Hossa one-time blast that beat Biron stick side at 8:24. It was 3-0 and bedlam at Mellon Arena.
The floodgates then opened. Malone picked up his second goal when he tipped Sergei Gonchar’s point shot at 11:42. Staal made it 5-0 with 58 seconds to play in the period, flipping a rebound over Biron. The party was on at Mellon Arena.
Dupuis made it 6-0 at 4:03 of the third period, deflecting Hossa’s wrist shot from the top of the faceoff circle.
Notes: Flyers defenceman Braydon Coburn (eye) and Penguins winger Gary Roberts (pneumonia) did not play. Rookie Ryan Parent kept his place in the Flyers lineup over Jaroslav Modry with Timonen’s return … The Penguins beat the Flyers in a playoff series for the first time after losing in three previous tries (2000, 1997, 1989) … The Penguins haven’t lost at home in regulation since Feb. 13.