RALEIGH, N.C. -- They have reached the same point as a year ago -- the Stanley Cup final -- but the Penguins took a different path this time.
They still had to win three rounds -- 12 games -- to become the Eastern Conference representative. There even was a common opponent along the way, Philadelphia.
In 2008, the Penguins ripped through their first three matchups. They swept Ottawa in the first round, then won the first three games against the New York Rangers before securing that second-round series in five games. The Eastern Conference final against the Flyers mirrored the Rangers series.
"It's been different," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said of this year's run. "With all respect to the teams we played last year, it was a pretty easy ride there. Just two games we lost before the finals. So it was a pretty smooth ride."
With the exception of the sweep they completed Tuesday against Carolina in the
Eastern Conference final, the Penguins earned their spot in the Stanley Cup final-- which will open Saturday against Detroit -- the hard way.
"We definitely picked a harder route this year," center Jordan Staal said. "Last year, we rolled through the first three rounds pretty quickly. I think it's good that we faced a little adversity already this year and we know what it takes to get through those things and keep on an even keel."
Philadelphia, the Penguins' staunchest rival, was first up. The Penguins won the first two games, but the Flyers stretched the series to Game 6 and held a 3-0 lead in that contest at Wachovia Center before the Penguins came back to win that game, 5-3, and move on.
Washington has become a strong rival because of the matchup of Penguins centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin against Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin, widely considered the top three players in hockey. The emergence of Russian rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov for the Capitals added intrigue to the series.
The Capitals won the first two games before the Penguins reeled off three wins in a row. It went seven games, with the Penguins missing a chance to wrap it up at home in Game 6 and having to go on the road for a 6-2 win to advance.
Then came the four-game sweep in the Penguins' first playoff series against Carolina.
"It's a different playoffs than last year, definitely. It's a different atmosphere," forward Max Talbot said. "We're playing against rivalry teams. The first two series were longer. Everything is different about it.
"It's been tough. You look at the first rounds. Against Philly, at one point, we started questioning ourselves. We battled back. Washington was the same thing, where we battled back, that type of series."
Defenseman Sergei Gonchar likes the fact the Penguins were tested more this year, and he extends that back to a strong stretch run in the regular season just to make the playoffs.
"It is a little different, but at the same time I believe it's probably better for us because we went through adversity during the season and now in the playoffs," he said. "It's helping us. It's building our club, helping us to move forward."
Gonchar, who is playing while recovering from a knee injury he got in the Washington series, might have benefited from the type of long layoffs between series the Penguins had last year, but those never materialized because of the length of the first and second rounds this season.
Still, there are no major health issues with the club going into the final.
"We've played a few more games, but for the most part, we've outplayed the other teams so far, so I think as far as the wear-and-tear on our bodies, we're in good condition," defenseman Rob Scuderi said.
There's no telling how grueling the final might be, but the Penguins will call on the experience last year of playing against the high-powered Red Wings for the right to lift the Stanley Cup. Detroit shut out the Penguins the first two games. The Penguins then made the series more competitive, but lost in six games.
"There were just a lot of times this year maybe we could have caved in and lost our composure," Orpik said. "I think maybe [what we went through] last year in the finals, it helped us a lot in the first couple of rounds [this year] against Philly and Washington.
"I think the maturity level here is a lot higher than it was last year, too."
So, different path, same doorstep. Is one route better than another?
"It really doesn't matter," defenseman Hal Gill said. "Just as long as it gets done."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.