STOP US if you've read this before: MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. While the inevitable headline neatly summarizes Pittsburgh's bold trek to the Stanley Cup finals in a mere 14 postseason games, march implies military precision or at least some semblance of order, which, in the larger context of this oft-troubled franchise, is a hilarious conceit. The saga of Pittsburgh's return to the finals for the first time since 1992, when it won its second straight Cup, has been more LURCH OF THE PENGUINS. ¬∂ The team that brushed aside the Philadelphia Flyers 6--0 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday—Pittsburgh won its 16th straight home game before a 64th consecutive sellout—is not far removed from its stumbling days, a five-year stretch of persistent losing, three near changes in ownership, the threat of relocation to Kansas City, Mo., and an 11th-hour arena deal that didn't firmly affix team to city until 14 months ago. Having twice filed for bankruptcy since joining the NHL in the 1967 expansion, most recently in '98, the Penguins are now poised to write a new chapter with captain Sidney Crosby and sidekick Evgeni Malkin, splendid supporting forwards such as Jordan Staal, underrated defensemen, a truth-telling coach and capable goaltending from the Smiling Bandit, Marc-André Fleury. However it unfolds, this one will be more glorious than Chapter 11.
This is an article from the May 26, 2008 issue
THE METAMORPHOSIS began with the drafting of Crosby, a reminder that it helps in hockey to have balls—lottery balls. When the Penguins won the lottery on July 22, 2005 (they had finished with a league-worst 58 points before the '04--05 lockout) president Ken Sawyer, representing Pittsburgh at the proceedings, actually took a step back in amazement. That was the last step back for the Penguins, who selected Crosby eight days later. Ticket sales, which had declined to an average of 11,877, the Penguins' lowest in nearly two decades, surged instantly. "That was a seminal moment because it told me the marketplace, the fan base, was here," Sawyer, now the team's CEO, says. "This was a hockey town, a hockey burg. We were working hard on an arena deal, and with that you sign a 30-year lease. You want to have a feel that the marketplace is there." The deal for a $290 million arena was belatedly finalized on March 13, 2007.
No matter what corporation brands the building, which is scheduled to open downtown in time for the 2010--11 season, it will be the House That Sid Built. Crosby led playoff scoring with 21 points through Sunday, but the most impressive number in his spring portfolio is three: the seasons he needed to lead his team to the Stanley Cup finals. Wayne Gretzky took four to carry the Edmonton Oilers that far; Mario Lemieux, the Penguins' chairman and Crosby's landlord, took seven in Pittsburgh. The integers that define greatness do not appear in just the goals and assists column.
Of course to split the Penguins' goofy history into B.C. and A.D.—Before Crosby and After Draft—is to diminish the significance of Malkin, who was chosen second in the 2004 draft, and of Fleury, who was taken No. 1 in '03. As Sawyer says, "If you go to the bottom and stay there a couple of years"—the Penguins placed no higher than 26th in the league between 2000--01 and '05--06—"good things [can] happen." The Penguins stooped, then conquered, after collecting cornerstones that also included Staal, the checking-line center drafted second in 2006.
The bricks of the franchise needed mortar; in fact, they were also treated to mortar fire by a new head coach. Michel Therrien was promoted in December 2005 from AHL Wilkes-Barre after Craig Patrick, the Hall of Fame G.M., fired Ed Olczyk. Therrien had led Montreal to the second round in 2002, during which he essentially cost the Canadiens a pivotal Game 4 decision by vehemently arguing a referee's call and drawing an unsportsmanlike penalty. That gave the Hurricanes a five-on-three power play and fueled their three-goal third-period comeback. Therrien compounded his gaffe by having fourth-liner Bill Lindsay take a defensive-zone face-off in overtime; the lost draw led to Carolina's winning goal.
If the modern Penguins were born on the day they won the Crosby lottery, their baptism occurred courtesy of Therrien at the Igloo on Jan. 10, 2006. This was a three-minute, 45-second baptism by fire. With neither the incredulity of Jim (Playoffs?!) Mora nor the rage of Dennis (Crown Their Ass) Green, Therrien, disgusted after a 3--1 loss to Edmonton, excoriated his players during a press conference, describing the game as "a pathetic performance" and saying, "half of the team doesn't care." He added, "I really start to believe their goal is to be the worst defensive squad in the league—and they're doing a great job [at it]. They turn the puck over. They have no vision. They're soft. I've never seen a bunch of defensemen soft like this."
"We're playing in Columbus the next night, and I get to the plane and guys are saying, 'Did you hear what he said?'" defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "We weren't too happy. I don't want to say that it had to be said, but honestly we were a country club. We had missed the playoffs four years in a row. We'd lose seven of eight, win two, lose three more, and after the game we're like, O.K., so we lost to Edmonton, let's go play Columbus tomorrow. This was a wake-up call."
So awakened, the Penguins proceeded to lose 6--1 to the Blue Jackets. But Therrien remembers seeing positives in the rout. In truth, what he saw were six fights. Although Pittsburgh failed to win even one—left winger Ryan Malone grinned last week as he recalled being cuffed by forward Michael Rupp—the mere acts of engagement pleased him. "They looked like a team that cared," Therrien said last week. "The little light at the end of the tunnel, I started to see it that day."
"Things had been a little too lax, but that's just the way it was here," Crosby said. "Was [Therrien] really that far off [in his comments] given the way we were playing?"
(Incidentally Whitney, Rob Scuderi and Sergei Gonchar, the three current Penguins defensemen who were on the ice that night against Edmonton, were a combined +8 against Philadelphia. Gonchar made the play of the series, hustling back to make a lunging sweep-check of the puck from the Flyers' Mike Richards on a shorthanded breakaway in a 4--1 Game 3 win. Soft? No longer.)
Therrien's scolding might have been essential shock therapy in Pittsburgh, but it was merely shocking around the NHL. The Penguins had a reputation as a team whose inmates ran the asylum, and the assumption was that they merely had a new head lunatic. "I saw it on TV and thought either that's really going to work or it really isn't," said Ray Shero, then the assistant G.M. in Nashville. "For pretty much everybody in the league it was, Did you see what the guy in Pittsburgh did?"
Within six months Shero would be Therrien's boss, replacing Patrick. Although Sawyer had publicly declared that anyone taking the job would inherit Therrien, who had two years left on his contract, Shero says he would have been allowed to make a change. But the Penguins didn't need a new coach, just a new culture. The franchise was mired in the '90s—the 1890s. This was a number 2--pencil organization, one without Internet hookup in the coaches' offices. Despite the turmoil surrounding the team's potential move—"My wife held off buying curtains and drapes because we didn't know if we'd be there more than a year," Shero says—the new G.M. knew he needed to bring the Penguins up to code.
By his count, he fired "15 or 18" people. He changed the layout of the Mellon Arena dressing room. He helped reshape a team that was hungry. Literally. Among the litany of turning points, plans for a new venue were less appreciated than the arrival of a new menu. As players settled in for the first flight of the 2006--07 exhibition season, instead of the standard pepperoni pizza or chicken fingers with French fries that had passed for nutrition on Pittsburgh charters—"carnival food," Whitney called it— they were offered sushi appetizers, chicken and pasta, steak and potatoes, and a choice of water or a sports drink instead of beer. Whitney surveyed the gustatory bounty and yelled, "Hot damn, we're in the NHL."
NOW PITTSBURGH is in the finals, a testament to how quickly fortunes can change: The Calgary Flames went from missing the playoffs for the seventh straight year to Game 7 of the 2004 final, and Carolina vaulted from 30th place in 2002--03 to a Stanley Cup in '06. The difference is that these young Penguins don't have a jerry-built quality to them but an air of durability reminiscent of the Oilers of the early 1980s. After hanging on in Pittsburgh by their thumbs, the Penguins look solid as steel.
If one game proved their mettle, it was on Jan. 19 in Montreal. Fleury had been out six weeks with a high ankle sprain and Crosby missed the first of 28 games with his injured ankle. In Canada there was widespread debate over whether the Penguins, then second in the East, would even make the playoffs. Dany Sabourin, the third-string goalie, shut out the Canadiens that night while Malkin began a push that would carry him to a 106-point season. "That was the night Geno took off," defenseman Brooks Orpik said of Malkin, who had an empty-net goal in the 2--0 win, but ruled all 200 feet. "There were lots of doubts outside the team and we were aware of what people were saying, but we were confident."
At the time the victory seemed to announce nothing more than that there could be life without Crosby, but in retrospect it had revealed the championship qualities of a team that now was capable of winning a 6--5 track meet or a 1--0 trench war. "We showed we were a complete team [this season]," Crosby said. "Every game's not going to be to your team's strength. We have to be patient sometimes, and we proved we could play that way. And if you want to skate up and down with us, yeah, we can do that too."
This could be the June of the Penguins.
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