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Penguins have come a long way since last-place finish two years ago

PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Penguins are in the Stanley Cup final just two years removed from a last-place finish in the NHL's Eastern Conference.

There are several factors for this amazing turnaround aside from the most obvious, their rich collection of high draft picks quickly paying dividends. Marc-Andre Fleury (2003), Evgeni Malkin (2004), Sidney Crosby (2005) and Jordan Staal (2006) were top-two picks in the NHL entry draft and haven't disappointed.

But that's just scratching the surface of why this team has got it together:

1. Defence. Head coach Michel Therrien and his staff deserve much credit for convincing their young core to buy into a defensive commitment this is perhaps the biggest reason why they're in the Stanley Cup final. The Penguins have the best defensive record in the NHL playoffs, giving up only 1.86 goals per game. Crosby and Malkin and other stars such as Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone backcheck with the same enthusiasm as they bring to their offensive game. The hardest sell for a coaching staff is getting young offensive players to buy into that. Once they do, the rest of the team follows suit.

And to think, just two and a half years ago, Therrien exploded for a famous rant that boiled down to its essence, saw him label his team as the worst defensive team in the league. Now look at them.

2. Ray Shero's moves. The trade deadline doesn't always pay off. But the Penguins were big winners thanks to their GM, Shero. The acquisitions of Hossa, Pascal Dupuis and Hal Gill have proved integral to their playoff success. Hossa was the obvious bonus, a star quality forward that suddenly transformed the Penguins from a one-line team to a two-line attack. Crosby, Hossa and Dupuis have formed a line that has been terrific in these playoffs. Malkin remained with Malone and Petr Sykora on other line. As the opposing coach, which line do you put your best checkers on? Dupuis and Gill, meanwhile, became regular penalty killers - helping a unit that was average for the most of the regular season into one of the best in the playoffs.

3. Fleury comes of age. It's hard to believe today but when Fleury came off the injury list in late February after missing close to three months with a high ankle injury, there were some who actually believed Ty Conklin should remain the starter. After all, Conklin had saved their season with some terrific netminding. It also spoke to Fleury's inconsistent first few years in the NHL. But the 23-year-old goalie, spurred on by the competition from Conklin, won back his job and never looked back. He is now showing why he went first overall in the 2003 NHL entry draft, looking confident and poised in the Penguins net.

4. Sid The Kid. OK, this is obvious. But it's not just the offensive numbers (21 points in 14 games) that sets Crosby apart. The 20-year-old captain has shown tremendous leadership in these playoffs. The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, in particular, tried all they could to get under his skin. Aside from a brief flash of anger towards Mike Richards at the end of Game 4 in Philadelphia, Crosby has turned the other cheek and kept his poise. That's leadership. He's also been Pittsburgh's most consistent performer.

5. Depth down the middle. Crosby and Malkin get all the attention but there aren't many teams that can boast a No. 3 centre of Staal's quality. One day, he will be a top-two centre a bigger offensive contributor. But for now, the 19-year-old native of Thunder Bay, Ont., has accepted his role, a checking centre and top penalty killer. His line with Tyler Kennedy and Jarkko Ruutu did such a job on Philadelphia's top line centred by Daniel Briere that Flyers head coach John Stevens shuffled his lines after Game 3 to get away from the Staal coverage. Staal has also chipped in with some timely goals, getting three in the last two games. He's getting hot just in the time for the Cup final.



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