SAN JOSE, Calif. -- As the Pittsburgh Penguins packed up their gear at the SAP Center in San Jose, ready to head home, they did so knowing that another object was also being readied for the same trip: the Stanley Cup.
Over the next 72 hours, the Penguins will have a chance to reflect on the arrival of the coveted trophy in its familiar wheeled box in their city and the final step that lies ahead. And maybe they'll also consider the many steps that led them to this point, including Monday's 3-1 win here over the San Jose Sharks in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals.
It was a win that gave them a 3-1 series lead and an opportunity to secure a championship Thursday night (8 ET) in Game 5.
It's a win that narrows the focus at the end of this long, meandering season and gives us pause to think of how a team that looked so unchampionship-like in October and November and even into December has become what might be viewed as a team of destiny.
"I mean, pretty surreal that we were out of the playoffs and everybody had kind of counted us out," said Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, who bounced back from a subpar performance in a Game 3 loss to once again lead all skaters with 25:20 in ice time in Game 4, adding an assist on a second-period, power-play goal that would stand as the winner.
"It's been a huge journey," said defenseman Ian Cole, who opened the scoring with his first-ever postseason goal.
He became the 16th different Penguin to score a goal in these playoffs.
And really, that says so much about this team and how Pittsburgh remade itself from a disjointed, aimless group that began the season with three straight losses and ambled through November before general manager Jim Rutherford fired second-year head coach Mike Johnston and replaced him with Mike Sullivan, setting in motion a series of dominoes that would tumble their way to the edge of a Stanley Cup championship.
"No one was happy with the way [the season] started," Cole said. "We learned hard lessons. We grew as a team. We had some fantastic additions to our team. We just kind of grew together and knew we had to kind of come together as a team to be this successful, to get to where we wanted to get to, and we did that."
Game 4 was more of what has become a familiar refrain from the Penguins this spring: Expect the unexpected. Expect the group to be somehow more formidable than its often formidable individuals.
To wit: Cole scores and then Evgeni Malkin scores on the power play for just his second goal in the past 16 games. And finally Eric Fehr, an offseason addition who missed time early this season with an injury, snapping home a wonderful Carl Hagelin feed to snuff out what looked like another late-game Sharks rally. Behind them, rookie goalie Matt Murray once again rebounds from a loss with a stellar effort, stopping 23 of 24 shots as the Penguins were outshot for the first time in 13 games.
"It's hard to believe," said longtime broadcast analyst Phil Bourque, who won two championships with the Penguins in 1991 and 1992.
"October, November, December just seems so long ago. And the trials and tribulations. All the question marks of what is wrong with this team, why aren't they winning? It seems like a hundred years ago."
So many miles traveled by this team and such a short distance yet to go, although "short" is very much a relative term.
"You've just got to understand that it's going to take our best and we're going to see their absolute best," explained captain Sidney Crosby, who has to be the clubhouse leader for the Conn Smythe Trophy should the Penguins close out the Sharks on Thursday.
"In saying that, you can't get caught looking ahead of things," Crosby added. "We've had a great approach all playoff long -- all season long -- in making sure we're staying in the moment here. That will be important here, now more than ever."
Matt Cullen understands this moment as well as any. Back in 2006, his Carolina Hurricanes took a 3-1 series lead over the Edmonton Oilers in the finals and it took all seven games before the 'Canes celebrated a Stanley Cup win.
"We've earned ourselves a good opportunity here," said the 39-year-old, who has had a stellar finals series. "It's a different level of excitement. And I think that it's something that we've earned. But all it is, is an opportunity right now. It's up to us to take advantage of it.
"Now the work begins."
Maybe Cullen is right. We like to imagine moments like this as a kind of journey, but maybe it's more like a job, building some sort of structure or object. For the Penguins, construction began months ago, even if it seems like years and years.
"It's been a pretty special ride and our group has developed some pretty close bonds, and we've really come together here," Cullen said. "We've gone through a lot, and to turn it around the way we have and to stick with it through everything says a lot about our team. So it's been a special ride so far. We sure want to finish it off the right way."