DETROIT – When the Pittsburgh Penguins edged the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup final on Friday, it meant more than just the third title in franchise history.
It proved that the NHL's heralded under-25 stars, such as Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, are finally ready to dominate not only as individual trophy winners, but also as cornerstone players on championship clubs at the highest level.
The Penguins faced long odds in their quest to win Game Seven in “Hockeytown” and take revenge for losing last year's finals to Detroit. The Red Wings had thumped them 5-0 in Game Five at the Joe Louis Arena, and the defending champs owned a 11-1 record on home ice heading into the last showdown. No NHL club had won Game Seven of the finals on the road since the 1971 Montreal Canadiens.
As is often the case in these games, it was an unlikely hero who led the way offensively: grinding winger Max Talbot outsmarted Detroit netminder Chris Osgood with two goals, similar to current Penguin Ruslan Fedotenko's Game Seven pair for Tampa Bay in 2004. All Detroit could muster was a desperate late rally, as Jonathan Ericsson scored to make it 2-1 with 6:07 left, and captain Nicklas Lidström was foiled in close by Marc-André Fleury before the final buzzer.
“Fleury played unreal,” said Pittsburgh's Petr Sykora of the goalie, who made 23 saves, several of the eye-popping variety. “He's the one who kept us in the games. He played great.”
It was an amazing turn-around for a Penguins team that racked up 18 wins and four overtime losses in its last 25 games to make the playoffs and earn the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
“It's surreal,” said Pittsburgh's rookie head coach, Dan Bylsma. “I don't know if anyone could have made up a story like that.”
Unmistakably, the Penguins couldn't have won the Cup without the dazzling contributions of Malkin and Crosby. They finished 1-2 in playoff scoring, and either one or both of them had at least one point in all but three of Pittsburgh's games.
Malkin rebutted the critics who panned his sub-par performance in the 2008 finals. The 22-year-old Magnitogorsk native led the playoffs with 36 points as he became the first Russian ever to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. Malkin joined Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Phil Esposito, and Guy Lafleur in the exclusive club of superstars that have captured both the regular-season and post-season scoring titles in the same year. Only Gretzky (peak: 47 points), Lemieux (peak: 44 points), and Paul Coffey (peak: 37 points) have ever posted higher playoff totals.
“It's a big day in my life,” said Malkin. “My friends are happy, I'm happy. We played 60 minutes and we stepped up the whole game.”
Few would have believed that Bylsma's squad could claim Lord Stanley's mug with Crosby held pointless on Detroit ice in a seven-game series. Still, the Nova Scotia-born prodigy's total 31 points was outstanding – not to mention his strong two-way play despite the tenacious shadowing of Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg. At 21, Crosby became the youngest captain ever to hoist the Cup.
“The Cup is actually a lot heavier than I thought, but it's so worth it,” said Crosby, who was limited to one third-period shift after injuring his left knee on a Johan Franzén hit. “Our team battled so hard throughout the year, and after being on the losing side last year, this is amazing.”
The previous three Cup champions – Carolina (2006), Anaheim (2007), and Detroit (2008) – were led by such veterans as Rod Brind'Amour, Scott Niedermayer, and Lidström. Yes, Crosby, Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, and other fresh-faced youngsters were reaping individual accolades in that period, but none of them had proved capable of keying a Stanley Cup victory.
Now, that has all changed, and the post-lockout era of youth, speed, skill, and skating is truly in full force. There is now heightened validity to the incessant comparisons of Crosby and Malkin to Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr with the early 1990s Penguins championship clubs, or of the Penguins to the Edmonton Oilers that took revenge on a veteran New York Islanders team in the 1984 final and claimed their first Cup. With other talented kids like forward Jordan Staal (20) and defenceman Kristopher Letang (22) on board, Pittsburgh's future looks bright.
What does it all mean for international hockey as we look ahead to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver?
For the resurgent Russians, who have won the last two IIHF World Championships, it adds an extra layer of big-game confidence, with both Malkin and another first-time Cup winner, Sergei Gonchar, sure to be on the roster.
Crosby's chances of being named Team Canada's captain have certainly increased, especially if Niedermayer and Joe Sakic opt for retirement. After going to two straight finals, Fleury cannot be overlooked as a potential starter or backup goalie for the Canadians, although he'll still need a strong start in 2009-10 to edge out Martin Brodeur or Roberto Luongo.
Despite falling short this year, Mike Babcock must still be considered a leading candidate to coach Canada. Bylsma, an American who played 429 NHL games as a journeyman forward, should receive consideration as an assistant to Team USA coach Ron Wilson.
For the veteran Wings, the agonizing Game Seven loss meant a list of squandered opportunities. There would be no fifth Stanley Cup for Triple Gold Club members like Lidström and Tomas Holmström or checking buddies Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby. Osgood might still get an invite to Team Canada's training camp, but didn't look good on either of the goals he surrendered in Game Seven, and missed his chance to be named playoff MVP.
Marian Hossa had to be the most disappointed guy in Detroit after ending up on the losing team in the Stanley Cup finals for the second consecutive year. The Slovakian power forward starred on Crosby's line in 2008, but decided the Wings were a more attractive option as a free agent that summer.
Talk of anointing Detroit, the NHL's most consistently successful franchise since the early 1990s, as a dynasty can't help but diminish. (The team's four most recent titles came in 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008.) The Wings have excelled at identifying European talent over the years, and could have set a new record with 14 European-born and trained players getting their names on the Cup this year. But that's all moot now.
Still, it was hardly a disastrous campaign for the Wings. They'll certainly return as a strong Cup contender in 2009-10, even with players like Hossa, Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson, Brad Stuart, and Tomas Holmström potentially leaving via free agency.
This was a fine outing for Pittsburgh's Europeans. Besides Malkin, Gonchar, and Ukraine's Fedotenko, Slovakia's Miroslav Satan won his first Cup after previously making his biggest impact as a tournament all-star at the 2000 and 2002 IIHF World Championships. The Czech Republic's Sykora earned his second Cup, the first coming with New Jersey in 2000. Ironically, the gifted winger missed the decisive game due to injury in both cases, this year due to a broken foot after blocking a shot in Game Six.
In the end, the game of hockey and its fans were the real winners. This was one of the most exciting Stanley Cup finals in recent memory, certainly at least since the 1994 seven-game clash where the New York Rangers beat out the Vancouver Canucks. The result heightens the tension surrounding 2010, when new Olympic and Stanley Cup champions will be unveiled. And the game's brightest young stars will almost certainly be front and centre.