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Crosby and the Penguins will learn valuable lessons from long playoff run

PITTSBURGH - Next time he's in the Stanley Cup final, here's betting Sidney Crosby will be able to better fill out his playoff beard.

He'll certainly have more experience under his belt. The 20-year-old superstar centre and captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins was the best player on his team in this year's NHL playoffs. Especially in the Cup final when a few of his teammates looked in awe of being on the game's biggest stage.

Crosby put up 27 points (6-21) in 20 playoff games, tied for the playoff lead with Conn Smythe Trophy winner Henrik Zetterberg. Like his fellow Detroit star, Crosby was a consistent performer from the first to the last game of the post-season. He had two goals and four assists in the six-game loss to the Red Wings in the Cup final.

But all that meant nothing Wednesday night. He dearly wanted his first Cup title in only his third year in the NHL. He'll undoubtedly get another shot.

Whether his team makes the Cup final a regular venture remains to be seen. The Penguins have a number of unrestricted free agents this summer, including trade deadline acquisitions Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis, winger Ryan Malone, defenceman Brooks Orpik, tough guy Georges Laraque, winger Jarkko Ruutu and veteran forward Gary Roberts.

The 42-year-old Roberts may have played his last game Wednesday night although that decision will wait for another day.

Still, there's a young core still in place. Star centre Evgeni Malkin, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, centre Jordan Staal and defencemen Kris Letang and Ryan Whitney should be around for a few more years.

Fleury had a sensational playoff, one that signalled the franchise goalie has arrived after being chosen first overall in the 2003 NHL entry draft. His 55-save performance Monday night kept the Penguins alive in the Cup final. The Penguins are set in goal.

Malkin had a breakout regular season, earning him a nomination for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, but his performance in the Cup final wasn't up to his standards. He was limited to one goal and two assists in six games against Detroit and finished the post-season with two goals and three assists in his last 10 games.

There was talk that he may have been sick with the flu at the beginning of the final. He did come on late in Game 5 on Monday and was outstanding throughout Wednesday in Game 6, scoring his first goal of the final.

But it was too little, too late. The Cup final loss stings for Pittsburgh, but the reality is that the Penguins have come a long way from being the league's doormat in 2003-04 and 2005-06. Part-owner Mario Lemieux also helped save the team from relocation when his group was able to negotiate a deal with the city to build a new arena, which begins construction next month.

The Penguins have a bright future on and off the ice.

"Obviously Mario and his group, keeping the team here, and the new rink coming and the franchise-type players and the youth they have here, and marquee names to sell a franchise, it's a great situation," Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock observed Wednesday. "And the people are excited about their team.

"And I think it's fantastic for them. They had really great teams here for a number of years. Things weren't so good for a while. And it's great to see them back and the city looking like it does."


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