The Pittsburgh Penguins proved their mettle in prevailing in Game 7 in Detroit over the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings. They played better. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury came up with his best effort at Joe Louis Arena when it mattered most, saving the celebration with his left-shoulder lunge save on Nick Lidstrom with one second remaining. Role player Max Talbot stepped into the spotlight and took a star turn with two goals. And the team overcame a mid-game injury to Captain Sidney Crosby to carry on and finish its comeback from a 0-2 series deficit.
Against that backdrop, the term that keeps coming to mind is "having it all come together" -- both in the short term and overall. The shorter view is the series in which the Penguins won four of the last five contests, and the narrowest view is their performance in Detroit in Game 7. Stretched out a bit further, GM RayShero's trade deadline acquisitions of Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin and Craig Adams all paid off, as did Shero's decision to replace coach Michel Therrien with Dan Bylsma.
You can extend the sequence events back over the past six years to include the drafting of Fleury, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin -- this year's Conn Smythe winner -- and Jordan Staal. It is a process that began under former GM Craig Patrick and had first-time coach Ed Olczyk behind the bench of a rebuilding team. There was talk of insolvency and possible franchise relocation before ownership and the city agreed on a new building deal. The Penguins don't move into their new home until 2011, but they'll now be able to hang a 2009 Stanley Cup banner in the new digs.
Honestly, the Penguins' ascent to the top is an amazing amalgam of good fortune, good decisions, good people and good timing. To see twenty-one year old captain Crosby holding the Cup aloft was an almost surreal culmination of so many forces and factors. Yes, they are Stanley Cup champions and yes they earned it, but what does this mean moving forward? Well, now that the Penguins have won it all, it means the Eastern Conference has a dominant team to contend with for the foreseeable future.
This renaissance also means owner Mario Lemieux is well on his way to getting into the Hall of Fame a second time, this time as a builder. Through all of this, Lemieux has been a part of the process. When things got messy and uncertain from a business perspective, Lemieux took on more instead of leaving it to others. As the organization has evolved, Lemieux has quietly become a guiding force for the franchise. As he told reporters after the victory, "This is special. It is different than winning as a player, not as emotional, but still special. I came to Pittsburgh at 18, and keeping hockey here forever became the goal. This is a nice step for us."
I'll say. With an obviously special group of core young players in place, a GM who is realistic, astute and not afraid of making the tough decision, and an owner who has evolved from the teenage face of a franchise to the patron saint of hockey in Pittsburgh, the Penguins have the look and feel of a model franchise. In fact, from top to bottom they compare favorably to everyone's example of organizational excellence, the Red Wings.
With Cup in hand, the Penguins' journey to redefine themselves is complete. What remains is defining how great can this group be and for how long. Like the team they just beat, the Penguins now are striving for sustainability -- the ever elusive drive to achieve year after year. Even in defeat, the Red Wings continue to master that model and I'm sure Lemieux and company have taken notes.
It sure seems that way.