DETROIT – This was the rare sequel that outdid the original.
Few gave the Pittsburgh Penguins much chance to dethrone the Detroit Red Wings in the first Stanley Cup finals rematch in 25 years. Even fewer thought they could dig out of a 2-0 hole and beat the defending champions four times in five games.
Throw in the loss of 21-year-old captain Sidney Crosby in the second period of Game 7, and the situation became even more dire.
Yet, Crosby – injured knee and all – hoisted the Cup in Hockeytown on Friday night after a gut-wrenching 2-1 victory. He revelled in the Penguins’ third championship with Mario Lemieux, the team’s former captain, current owner and Crosby’s very proud landlord.
The Penguins won the final two games by 2-1 scores and finished the comeback by becoming the first club to take the Cup with a Game 7 road victory since Montreal in 1971.
“After last year it was pretty devastating to everybody,” Crosby said. “But we found our way back and finally finished it off.”
They matched those 1971 Canadiens in becoming the fourth champion to rebound from a 2-0 deficit in the finals, by winning Game 7 on the road after the home team won the first six games, by going all the way with a rookie coach who took over mid-season and by coming out on top in a pair of Game 7s on the road in one year.
This instant classic series featured two one-goal games, four two-goal games and one Red Wings 5-0 blowout in Game 5 that seemed likely to propel them to a repeat.
But Detroit couldn’t seal the deal on its fifth Cup in 12 seasons.
“We looked out of gas pretty much all series,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “We competed, and I thought we tried, but I never thought we got to the level we’d have liked to.
“That’s what happens when you’re in a real good series. Not only did their good players play good, but I thought their team played good and played hard. I thought (goalie Marc-Andre) Fleury had his best two games in Games 6 and 7, and you’ve got to give him credit.”
There was plenty to go around.
Sid the Kid, who lives in Lemieux’s guest house, has quickly grown up to be a champion at 21 – the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup winner.
Lemieux also joined a Penguins team at the bottom of the standings and carried them to titles in 1991 and ’92. His first championship came at the wizened age of 24.
“It means everything to him,” Lemieux said, referring to Crosby. “This kid, all he thinks about is winning championships. His whole life is training and practising and playing hockey. He’s a great kid, a perfect hockey player. That’s all he does, think about hockey every day. It’s amazing. I wish I would have had that discipline back then.”
Even though Crosby has spent only four seasons in the NHL, greatness has long been expected. That is the pressure that comes with the accolades and the buildup of being tabbed the next Wayne Gretzky.
Crosby began skating at 2 1/2 and has been a hockey household name from the time he was in his early teens. Now that name will forever be followed by Stanley Cup champion and etched on the trophy he shared with Lemieux on Friday.
“It means so much,” Crosby said. “It’s all the sacrifices that people make so you can get to this point, and my parents. It’s the coaches you have along the way. It’s the people that influence you. These things are all things that, you think about.
“You’re preparing for a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, and that’s the only thing I could think about, all these people who are watching, and all these people I wanted to do it for personally.”
Just a few seasons ago, Crosby was part of a Penguins team that had the NHL’s worst record. That was some lottery ticket the Penguins snagged when they won the 30-team sweepstakes to draft the 17-year-old Crosby after the NHL’s season-long lockout ended in 2005.
Crosby was mostly bottled up in the finals by Henrik Zetterberg. He managed one goal and two assists in the series and took only one shift of Game 7 after his knee was injured from a crushing check from Johan Franzen early in the second period.
The Penguins, who had been 1-5 in Detroit in the past two finals and 0-3 in this series, doubled their road goal output in Game 7 and skated off with their second straight one-goal win. After being outscored 11-2 at Joe Louis Arena in the finals, Pittsburgh wrested the Cup from the team that won it a year earlier in the Steel City.
That series ended in six games, but this one went the distance as the Penguins used the experience from 2008 to come back from a 3-2 deficit.
Max Talbot scored both goals in the clincher, Fleury was at his best in making 23 saves and Evgeni Malkin skated off with the Conn Smythe Trophy after putting up 36 points in the playoffs – the most since Gretzky had 40 in 1993.
Sprinkle in veteran Bill Guerin, rescued from the last-place New York Islanders at the trade deadline, and the fresh thoughts of rookie coach Dan Bylsma and a bond was formed.
When Bylsma took over for fired coach Michel Therrien on Feb. 15, the Penguins were question marks to even make the playoffs let alone defend their Eastern Conference title or go all the way. Even he didn’t expect a championship this season.
“We just got them focused in a different direction,” Bylsma said “I’m a little surprised how quick they bought in and how quick they got it, but I’m not surprised how good they became.”
He might be the only one who wasn’t.