Celebration? Not yet, say these Pens
RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Prince of Wales Trophy, shiny and ornate, sat on the dressing room floor near the water fountain and the curtained changing area of the Pittsburgh Penguins' locker room.
Some of the Penguins who weren't playing in the team's decisive 4-1 victory that completed a four-game sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes examined the trophy and discovered the lid comes off. Who knew? We are certain no one put a pizza crust or crumpled beverage can inside it, but there could hardly have been a less prized trophy in all of the sporting world than the one being largely ignored by Pittsburgh on Tuesday night.
Last season, no one even touched the trophy awarded annually to the Eastern Conference champions, so it was almost shocking to see captain Sidney Crosby grab it and pose for pictures with teammates Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar after the two teams had shaken hands to signal the end of the series.
"It doesn't mean that we think we're finished by any means, but we can still enjoy it," Crosby noted. "You know, we just wanted to change things up, and we didn't touch it last year. Might as well grab it and get a picture with it and move on and go after the one we really want."
The whole trophy thing actually has more to do with Crosby's relentless superstitions than celebrations. A year ago, when the Penguins dispatched Philadelphia in the conference finals, Crosby didn't touch the trophy at all.
This year, the Penguins are hoping for a different ending to a journey that has surprisingly found them at the same coveted place, the Stanley Cup finals.
"As for touching the trophy, I talked to Billy [Guerin] quick right after the game. I said, 'You know, I think I'm going to grab it this time,'" Crosby said. "He agreed."
If there was a moment of celebration after this one, it was stunningly brief, as though this wasn't so much a victory as a brief stop along the way to some more exotic locale. The odd can of light beer, a couple of players sporting Eastern Conference championship hats, a couple of visitors ... that was it.
"You don't expect to get there. You work for it, but at the same time, it's a relief," Crosby said of being just four wins away from a championship for the second straight season. "We have another opportunity here. Sometimes, you go that far and you never get a chance to go at it for a while. Some of the older guys, I think Billy Guerin, it's been a while for him. And for the guys that were here last year, we know that they've got a special opportunity to go at it again, and we want to take full advantage of it."
The Penguins will head to the Cup finals in full juggernaut mode, having won eight of their past nine games. During the Eastern Conference finals, they outscored Carolina 20-9 and allowed one power-play goal over the four-game sweep.
If the Chicago Blackhawks cannot extend their series against Detroit on Wednesday night, the rematch of last season's Cup finals will begin in Detroit with back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday. If the Blackhawks prevail in at least one game, the finals will begin in the Western team's rink a week from Friday with games on June 5 and 6.
"Right now, there's three teams left," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, always the even-keeled voice of this team. "So we'll take a breather, enjoy winning three rounds and getting to the finals, and we'll get focused here in the next couple of days. We'll take whoever we get."
The Penguins, who have clinched three straight series on the road this spring, are now the first team since the 1984 Edmonton Oilers to lose in the Cup finals and return there the following season.
It's not the last time you will read of that comparison. History, both short- and long-term, will worm its way into the plots and subplots of this Cup finals series. That Oilers team, likened by many to this Pittsburgh club last season, went on to win their first of five Stanley Cups over a seven-season span in 1984, beating the four-time defending champion New York Islanders, who had ousted Edmonton the previous spring.
"I don't know if that means anything to us, to be honest," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said of the Oilers' accomplishment.
It was the more recent history that seemed to resonate more clearly after this game; in mid-February, the thought of being in this place was at the edge of reality, if present at all. By the time general manager Ray Shero fired coach Michel Therrien and replaced him with the unheralded Bylsma, the Penguins had little margin for error to make the playoffs, let alone become a dominant team again.
"You guys kept telling us what our record had to be the rest of the way, how hard it was going to be, so that was in our heads for a while so we were well aware of it," Orpik said. "It was a pretty big hole we dug for ourselves."
Much will be made, of course, of the Penguins' desire to exact revenge on Detroit. And maybe there is something to that -- Orpik joked he didn't want to be caught on record as saying he hoped to face them again -- but probably less than people think.
"Four months ago, we'd have played anybody," Shero said.
Craig Adams, acquired at the trade deadline, concurred.
"I think, at this point, that can be overestimated. I think you want to win the Stanley Cup," Adams said. "It doesn't matter if you're playing Detroit or whoever. You don't need any extra motivation at this time of year. Obviously, the guys want to beat 'em, but I don't think they want to beat them more than if it was somebody else."
The differences in this Penguins team heading into the Cup finals are subtle and intangible. Oh, sure, there are the different faces, but the core of this team -- minus Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone, perhaps -- is the same. And so, the changes are the changes forged by time, by the experience of the grand disappointment of their Stanley Cup finals loss and their playoff journey this spring.
"To get back here was a lot tougher than it was last year, that's for sure," Orpik said. "With all respect to the teams we played last year on the way, it just kind of seemed like a much smoother ride."
It's easy to say after the fact that this is somehow a team of destiny, but the Penguins have looked very much like that this spring. They absorbed disappointment and injury, faced down deficits in games and series, and drawn strength from those things. By the time this series began, it took very little time to see that the Penguins were simply going somewhere the Canes could not follow.
"Pittsburgh played very, very well. I don't think we had a lot left in the tank, to be honest with you," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. "We had gone to the well a lot of times. We'd spent a lot to get here and earned the right to be here."
For the second straight game in this series, the Penguins spotted the Hurricanes the first goal. And for the fifth time in the series (not counting empty-net goals), the Penguins scored a goal in the final two minutes of a period, this one a fluky Maxime Talbot shot that deflected off Carolina defenseman Anton Babchuk's stick and then was misplayed by netminder Cam Ward. The goal gave the Penguins a 2-1 lead and turned out to be the winner.
"It's going to take a couple of days to process what went on," said Carolina's top forward, Eric Staal, who scored for the first time in the series to open the scoring Tuesday. It marked the only time this spring the Hurricanes lost when Staal scored. "There's a lot of fight in this room, a lot of good guys. Right now, it just doesn't feel very nice, knowing that tomorrow we're all done."
Leading up to this game, Carolina coaches and players talked about wanting to play their best and see where the chips fell. It never really got there.
"They played well and they worked for their bounces," Staal said. "If you don't have your best at this time of year, you're going to be out pretty quick and we found out the hard way."
On the video scoreboard before the game, an acoustic version of Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender" played over images of the Canes' playoff run, a retrospective even before the first puck was dropped.
Team of destiny? Who knows? But the Penguins seem determined to find out.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.