Ah! Sweet victory of life

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There was only one bit of suspense left late Friday night after Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury swatted away a desperate, last-second shot by Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom to secure the 2-1 Game 7 win and third Stanley Cup championship in franchise history. It came after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman presented the cherished chalice to Penguins captain Sidney Crosby for the traditional skate around Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. To what teammate would Crosby give the Cup? It's one of the sport's great honors to be the second guy to hoist it, to caress it, to kiss it, to gaze lovingly at it and think, "Man, my name's going to be engraved on there forever!"

Crosby picked one of his linemates, veteran winger Bill Guerin.

Somehow, that seemed right.

"A great guy in the room, a great team player, huge for team morale," Penguins forward Matt Cooke said of Guerin.

"An important piece of the puzzle," general manager Ray Shero said.

And this, the best label of all:

"A champion," the hockey world is calling Guerin this morning for the second time in his career.

For a player, 38, approaching the finish line of a great 16-year NHL ride, that's priceless.

"It's been such a long time," Guerin said, quietly, amid the Penguins' pandemonium on The Joe ice after handing the Cup off to defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who played in 929 regular-season games and 105 playoff matches before finally getting his sweaty hands on hockey's crown jewel.

"I almost forgot what this feels like."

Awesome describes it.

Incredible works, too.

It had been 14 long years since Guerin won the Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 1995. He was young, such a foolish dreamer at the time. "You think you're going to get a million more cracks at it," he said. "But you don't. You just don't."

Guerin never stopped trying, though. His amazing odyssey took him from Jersey to Edmonton to Boston to Dallas to St. Louis to San Jose to the New York Islanders. A lesser player and weaker man would have given up and called it a wonderful career, especially after the time he spent in hockey purgatory on The Island from 2007-09.

"When the Penguins traded for me [in March], they were in 10th place and I was in 30th," Guerin said. "But we started bonding immediately and started climbing the ladder."

Who knew at the time that the Penguins wouldn't stop until they reached the very top?

I mean, really?

The trade looked like such a can't-lose deal for Shero, even if it didn't seem as if it would put the Penguins over the top. If Guerin didn't have a lot left, so what? All Shero had to give up for him was a conditional draft pick.

"He certainly was not at the top of his game," Shero recalled. "Could he rekindle the magic and enthusiasm for his game? We thought he could still skate."

Guerin's leadership alone with a young, struggling team would be worth that draft pick, right?

You have no idea.

"He's provided that experience for us," Crosby said. "For me personally, he's been a guy I can lean on, bounce things off of."

Guerin helped out on the ice as well. "He's got a great shot. He's a big body out there. He can make smart, simple plays," Crosby said. Skating on Crosby's line with winger Chris Kunitz, another trade acquisition in February, Guerin had five goals and seven assists in 17 games down the regular-season stretch. He popped in seven more goals in the playoffs, the biggest coming in overtime to beat the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 2 of the first round.

Along the way, Guerin's four young kids received more television face time than he did. They would come in from Long Island for many of the Penguins' home games and were absolutely adorable holding up their signs, "My dad rocks! No. 13" and "Let's go, Dad!" It's no wonder the NBC and Versus big wheels melted when they saw them.

The Guerin kids were on the ice amidst the postgame chaos after dad got his turn with the Cup. None was born when he won with the Devils.

For this particular father, life just doesn't get any better than hugging the kids and the Cup in the same night.

"That makes it all worthwhile," Guerin said. "It's been such a long year for our family. Living apart ...

"But this is what we all wanted."

Certainly, it's what Guerin wanted.

"Just one more crack at it before my career ended," he said. "All you can ask for is an opportunity. I'm so thankful to the Penguins for giving it to me."

Then Guerin fairly hollered, "Thank God for Max Talbot!"

It was Talbot who scored both of the Penguins' goals Friday night.

It was Fleury, who played lights out on hockey's grandest stage, holding the mighty Red Wings to one goal for the second consecutive game.

And it was Evgeni Malkin, who left Detroit with the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP.

Happy heroes, all.

But I'm thinking none was happier than No. 13.

It's a short, quick plane ride from Long Island to Pittsburgh. But for Guerin, it was a trip of a lifetime.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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