NHL Playoffs: March of the Penguins from Last Place to Cup Finals in Three Years
With Sunday's victory over and the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pittsburgh Penguins advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1992.
The last time this happened, they won the 115-year-old trophy. The team should take that as a good sign, as things are finally looking up for the franchise.
It was not too long ago that most people wouldn't expect the Penguins to get this far, let alone make the playoffs in the first place.
Three years ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins were like the ugly girl in high school that no one wanted to date. They were perennial bottom feeders, and the once proud franchise played to empty seats at "the igloo."
To make matters worse, there was a chance that there wouldn't even be seats at all.
With the Penguins having one of the oldest arenas in the league and a lease that gives little revenue, it was economically impossible for them to stay in the 47-year-old Mellon Arena for long. But it looked like there wouldn't be a new arena funded by the government, and the two-time Stanley Cup winner was ready to move from Steel Town.
To say that Penguins fans expected Armageddon is an understatement.
But then the hockey gods heard the cries of the suffering and sent a savior.
A special draft lottery was held subsequently after the NHL lockout, which saw the league become the first in North American history to lose a season, and Wayne Gretzky's anointed successor was up for grabs.
Since he was a child, Sidney Crosby was predicted to follow in the legend's footsteps and become the one-man super player that only appears once a generation.
Imagine, then, the joy amongst the Pittsburgh faithful when they were awarded the first pick. Not only was "Sid the Kid" the savior for the league and the Penguins, he was a worthy heir to their own "Super" Mario Lemieux.
Hall of Fame member Lemieux was the man that mesmerized the igloo's fans with his in-human goals done with hands quicker than Houdini's. He led the team to two Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, which made the team relevant for the first time since its creation in 1967.
Lemieux saved the team again in 1999, buying the team after they were on the verge of bankruptcy.
In December 2000, he decided to become the first professional owner-athlete and suited up in the black and gold uniform again. He continued to play with ease, but he was aging.
Crosby would be his true successor.
When Sidney Crosby was unsurprisingly picked first at the entry draft, the 18-year-old pimply kid posed for a portrait with his new team's jersey. He sat down while a suit and tie-clad Mario stood tall behind him with a muscular hand over Crosby's shoulder.
They looked like father and son. The young player even lived in Lemieux's house during his rookie season from 2005-2006.
Lemieux played one more year until the end of that season, before he retired. The Penguins were still performing poorly in the standings, but hope had been renewed by the arrival of hockey's revered son.
Eventually, the team added talented Russian Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the young corps finally returned to the playoffs in 2007. That same year, Crosby won the Art Ross Trophy (Most Valuable Player in the regular season) and they were only a few points short of winning the Atlantic Division.
Still, the inexperienced team was clobbered by the eventual Stanley Cup finalist, the Ottawa Senators.
The next season, Crosby was named the youngest captain in NHL history at only 19-years-old.
Some critics complained that he was too young, and merely received the position due to his reputation. He responded with scoring 72 points in only 53 games, and the Penguins clinched the Division championship.
At the 2008 trade deadline, the Penguins decided to go for broke and acquired star sniper Marian Hossa from the Atlanta Thrashers. He has been a vital facet of the Penguins' offense in the playoffs, with 19 points through 14 playoff games.
The Penguins marched through this year's playoffs like an unstoppable army, going 12-2 to advance to the Finals.
For good measure, they swept the Ottawa Senators in the first round, which stopped Ottawa from defending their title as top team in the East.
As the Penguins await the winner of the Western Conference Finals (Detroit Red Wings vs. Dallas Stars), the city of Pittsburgh is once again abuzz with hockey.
The final game on Sunday was crammed with 17,132 fans—Mellon Arena only has 16,958 seats. Outside, more fans watched the game on a big screen, sitting on picnic blankets and lawn chairs.
Local city papers reported on how other Pittsburgh pro teams had become obsessed with Cup-fever. Steelers' (American Football) coaches and players have been spotted at games lately.
Imagine the reaction if a time traveler had gone three years into the past and had told a hockey fan about the current Penguins. The fan would have called the local asylum, and would have had the man locked up.
But truth can be stranger than fiction and America loves the rag-to-riches underdog story. This time, though, it's an under-bird that's going the distance.
Only time will tell if they'll be sipping champagne from the sterling silver trophy, but everyone has already seen how powerful a simple hope can be.
The first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals will be exclusively broadcast in the US on Versus. The rest of the series will be featured on NBC, in prime-time. Check NHL.com for updates on broadcast schedule.
Files from TSN.ca and Penguins.nhl.com were used in this report.
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