Pittsburgh Penguins Bask in Lord Stanley's Glory
Mad Max Talbot had rehearsed a Game Seven of a Stanley Cup finals plenty of times as a kid, dreaming of one day making a difference in the penultimate game. Apparently, he learned a trick or two that he stored away for just the right moment.
Unfortunately for the Red Wings, that moment was now.
Talbot score one more goal than the Red Wings in leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to claim their third Stanley Cup.
The Penguins capped off one of the most unlikely runs to a championship in the history of sports.
In the middle of the season, this team was left for dead. They Stanley Cup curse had struck.
They were playing without passion, seemingly adrift with no idea how to right the ship.
Ray Shero had finally seen enough, replacing Michel Therrien, the man that guided the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, with Dan Bylsma, who was coaching in Wilkes-Barre at the time.
Doubt was replaced by belief. The players believed in their coach and they believed in each other.
The Penguins, under Bylsma, caught fire. They gunned down playoff team after playoff team while just trying to climb back into the playoff standings. They went from way outside the playoff standings to capturing home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Along the way, article after article appeared, even among Pittsburgh sportswriters, declaring them dead after each setback.
But, the team never stopped believing. And by the time they made it to the playoffs, they weren't the only ones believing.
Nothing came easy for these guys.
They were in danger of going to a seventh game against the Philadelphia Flyers in a first round matchup before catching fire to put them away in the third period of Game Six.
They were on life support against the Washington Capitals on several occassions. First, they climbed out of a two game hole, surviving a pivotal Game Three by winning in overtime.
They bounced back from a home-ice loss to put the Caps away in Game Seven in Washington.
Against, the Red Wings, they again found themselves in a two-game hole. No team had ever climbed out of two game holes twice in a playoff run.
Sportswriters and NHL talking heads were practically tripping over each other to write the Penguins' obituary.
They just weren't experienced enough, didn't have the same discipline, didn't yet have what it took to beat the Red Wings.
But, they still believed and so did we. The Penguins rewarded our faith by winning the next two games.
After being blown out in Game Five, they were declared dead for the final time. But, the operative word for these Penguins since the mid-season turnaround was resilience.
And they bounced back to win Game Six in a gutty performance on home ice.
Still, plenty of people thought winning Game Seven in Detroit was a bridge too far. They were a great team and should be proud of what they had accomplished, but the universe would right itself in Game Seven.
The Penguins would hear none of it. They still believed this was their Cup to lose.
Energized by Marc-Andre Fleury's best game of the playoffs, the Penguins rose to the task one final time.
The game's pivotal moment happened in the second period. The Penguins were up 1-0, had just lost their captain for the game, and now were facing a crucial power play.
The game was on the line.
If the Red Wings score there, the Stanley Cup probably stays in Detroit. But, the Penguins played with heart and soul, finding just enough to kill off that penalty and the surge that followed.
Fleury threw himself all over the ice, as puck after puck stuck to him like glue.
There is nothing quite as frustrating as running into a red hot goalie at the worst possible time and that frustration became more and more evident for the Red Wings and their fans as the game progressed.
Fleury may still be standing in front of the net in Joe Louis Arena, daring the Red Wings to try to beat him with his signature smile hidden behind his hockey mask.
The Red Wings found themselves in an odd position, down two goals entering the last period of a Stanley Cup Finals.
And they responded as a champion should, by raising their game and attacking like there was no tomorrow.
The depleted Penguins, clearly feeling the loss of Crosby, hunkered down and continued to battle as the minutes winded down, barely hanging on.
The Red Wings finally beat Fleury with about six minutes left in the game, setting up one final frantic finish between these two teams.
In the final minutes, it appeared for a moment that the Red Wings had tied it. They finally got a puck by Fleury that bounced off the top crossbar. Time stood still for just that moment as the game hung in the balance.
And then the Penguins had pushed the puck back up the ice for a much needed reprieve.
It had to end this way for the Penguins, with one last gut check of a performance against a true hockey Dynasty.
As the playoffs progressed, I rooted for every team the Red Wings played out of sheer respect for the Red Wings. I believed, and still do, that they were the toughest possible matchup for the Penguins.
But, in the end, the the quality of the Penguins' opponent made the victory all the sweeter.
The Penguins wanted to be the best and did it in the ultimate way, by beating the team that everybody thought was the best.
The win was secured when Fleury hurtled himself in front of one last guided missile as the final second ticked off.
Penguins flooded the ice to celebrate one of the greatest achievements in all of sports.
While the Red Wings played with plenty of passion and pride, this was the Penguins' night.
Evgeni Malkin claimed the Conn Smythe after a sensational two-way effort in Game Seven that capped off his superb playoff run.
Sidney Crosby took the Cup and lifted it over his head, literally beaming as he carried it around the ice before handing it off to the old grizzled vet who played on his wing, Billy Guerin.
Guerin, like Brian Trottier seventeen years ago, looked like a kid in a candy store as he lifted the Cup up high, smiling from ear to ear, thrilled that fortune had handed him one last chance to lift Lord Stanley's cup over his head.
Marian Hossa looked on in disbelief as his old mates celebrated, trying to comprehend the hand that fate had dealt him.
The war was over.
The two teams met at center ice to shake hands as the champion torch was past from the veteran Red Wings to the young gun Penguins, at least for this year.
Mike Babcock was heard congratulating Sidney Crosby on his leadership, a class ending to a memorable series between two great teams.
Each of the Penguins took their turn with the Cup as they basked in one of sports' greatest accomplishments.
After Crosby took the first turn with the Cup as the youngest captain to ever secure that honer, the older vets got their turn to hoist it high before it finally made its way down to some of the younger players.
A surprising number of Penguins' fans were there to watch the celebration.
Nearly every player on their roster took a turn playing the hero during this playoff run which is exactly what it takes to win the Cup.
The March of the Penguins was over.
They were the champions.
And this was their night.
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