Penguins' turnaround complete with trip to Cup finals

PITTSBURGH -- As you watched the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers line up for the ceremonial end-of-series handshake at center ice Sunday, Penguins fans waving their white towels over their heads in celebration and confetti settling down from the Mellon Arena ceiling, it was easy to forget that, not so long ago, this Penguins team was a team without a future -- at least not a future here.

But just 17 months after Canadian technology mogul Jim Balsillie walked away from his offer to buy the team -- and presumably begin the process of moving the team to Canada -- these same Penguins are headed to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were leading the Pens to the second of back-to-back Cups in 1992.

From chaos to the Cup finals in the blink of an eye.

"It seems like a long time ago. It really wasn't, but it just seems we've come a long way, on and off the ice," GM Ray Shero said after the Penguins ended this Eastern Conference finals series with an emphatic 6-0 shutout of the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 on Sunday. "It's a great thing for the city of Pittsburgh and this franchise."

The Penguins will now enter the Cup finals as the NHL's hottest team with a gaudy 12-2 postseason record, something that was almost unthinkable two seasons ago, when the team was the worst in the Eastern Conference with 58 points (29th in the NHL).

"I think it's huge," Shero said. "I was telling someone just a few days ago, just looking back 15, 16 months, we had moved into our house and my wife didn't even buy new curtains. We didn't know if we were going to be here the following year and to see how far this team's come in that amount of time."

After the postgame handshake, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly presented Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby with the Prince of Wales Trophy, which is awarded to the Eastern Conference champion. Crosby, as has become tradition, did not touch the trophy, which was later set up on a table in a dark hallway outside the Penguins' dressing room. It was almost an afterthought.

"I've watched a lot of Stanley Cup playoff games," said Crosby, who received advice from veterans like Petr Sykora to not handle the hardware. "You don't see too many guys touch it. We all realized that's not the one we want to be holding."

In the dressing room, brand new T-shirts proclaiming the Penguins as conference champs appeared as though out of thin air. There were matching baseball caps. Lemieux, the Penguins' owner and team icon, made his way through the dressing room congratulating players.

"Four more," Ryan Whitney called out as he took a seat at his dressing room stall. But apart from a happy buzz, this was not a scene of unbridled euphoria, but something else perhaps closer to a satisfied calm.

Shero said he was chatting after the game with director of player development Tom Fitzgerald, whose Florida Panthers beat the Penguins in the 1996 Eastern Conference finals to earn the franchise's only trip to the Stanley Cup finals.

"They thought they'd won the Stanley Cup," Shero said. "I think we have a real focused group. Hopefully, in the end, that's going to bode well for us."

Two years ago, the Penguins were the worst defensive team in the league by a wide margin. Shortly after coach Michel Therrien took over for Ed Olczyk, he declared in one of his most famous tirades that the Penguins were trying to become the NHL's worst defensive team.

Yet now, through the last half of the regular season and into the playoffs, the Penguins have shown remarkable composure. They have allowed just 26 goals in 14 games and boast the best defensive record in the playoffs. Marc-Andre Fleury's shutout was his third of the postseason. The Penguins have not lost in regulation at home since Feb. 13, and are 8-0 at home in the postseason.

These are the facts that build the story of the Penguins' revival.

"We're aware of what we've accomplished, but obviously our goal is to win the Cup," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "At the same time, we're not blind to the fact of how far we've come in the last three years."

In many ways, Sunday's pounding of the Flyers was emblematic of their entire playoff voyage this spring.

Yes, the big guns returned from their one-game slumber in Game 4 on Thursday night in Philadelphia, with Marian Hossa leading the way with a goal and three assists. Crosby added a pair of assists and Evgeni Malkin, a nonfactor for the past three games, scored a goal.

Yet this victory was as much about Max Talbot and Pascal Dupuis and Brooks Orpik as the more famous Penguins.

It was Talbot, the energetic fourth-line center, who drew the first penalty of the game, keeping his feet moving in the offensive zone and forcing Mike Knuble to hook him to the ice just 2:18 into the first period. Twelve seconds later, Crosby's hard slap/pass glanced into the net off Ryan Malone, and the die was cast.

The penalty killers, led by Jordan Staal and Dupuis, once again limited the Flyers' chances. The Flyers were 0-for-4 on the man advantage and the Penguins have allowed just seven power-play goals in their 14 games, while scoring 16 times on the man advantage.

"There was no doubt that we were approaching every single game with a lot of confidence," Therrien said. "But to be quite honest, when we start the playoffs, we're not thinking about the Stanley Cup finals. Our main focus was on the first round, and that was our philosophy with that young group.

"I'm not a big fan to look on top of the mountain when there's a lot of steps to be made. And the next one, it's another step."

The Flyers, who had enjoyed a renaissance of their own by rebounding from a franchise-worst last-place finish last season to playoff upsets of Washington and Montreal, simply ran out of gas Sunday. They fell behind early on the Malone power-play marker and were never able to assert themselves.

"I just told the guys that I have been in the game a long time. Working with this group has been one of the more enjoyable experiences I've had in pro hockey. It really has been," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "We've made tremendous strides this year, and we've come an awful long way. You give Pittsburgh credit. To me, they were the No. 1 seed in the East in terms of what I've seen."

The Penguins will play the winner of the Western Conference finals series between the Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars. In the coming days, perhaps, they will get a chance to reflect on the path this team has followed to find itself at the big dance.

Across the street from Mellon Arena, buildings have already been razed to make way for a new home for the Penguins. Outside the arena, thousands of fans have gathered before each home playoff game to tailgate and watch the contest on a giant video screen. In the past, the rubble would have been symbolic of the team's state of affairs and there wouldn't have been a playoff game to consider, let alone fans to watch it on the lawn.

Now, the rubble speaks to the team's future, a future that now includes a trip to the Stanley Cup finals.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.