Most Penguins in uncharted waters

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They have been playing this game for most of their lives, but only a handful ever have experienced anything like this.

The passion. The pressure. And, especially, the reward.

Just six members of their current roster -- forwards Petr Sykora, Gary Roberts and Georges Laraque, defensemen Darryl Sydor and Sergei Gonchar and goalie Ty Conklin -- have competed in a Stanley Cup final, which means most players will be in uncharted territory when the Penguins face Detroit in Game 1 Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena.

How they react could have a major impact on how the series plays out.

If they are caught wide-eyed and flat-footed, the way many were when they got their first exposure to playoff hockey in an opening-round loss to Ottawa last spring, the Penguins will find it difficult to keep up with a team as skilled and seasoned as the Red Wings.

But Gonchar, whose Cup final resume consists of being on the wrong side of Detroit's sweep of Washington in 1998, said yesterday that trying to draw parallels between the Penguins of 2007 and this team doesn't work.

"It's a little different, because we've already gone through three rounds," he said. "You have that experience, and you're confident, obviously. So it's a little different.

"It seems like we have a good group of guys. Everybody recognizes the opportunity, and it seems like everybody is waiting for it. As soon as the game starts, they'll be able to adjust. We have a bunch of quick learners, and they'll be fine."

Although the major off-ice distractions will come after the Penguins travel to Detroit tomorrow, they have taken some of the early by-products of winning the Eastern Conference, like a locker room crammed with reporters and cameramen, in stride.

"There's a lot of stuff going on around you, obviously," defenseman Hal Gill said. "But I think we're pretty focused on what we're doing."

Of the six Penguins who have appeared in a Cup final, only Roberts, Sykora and Sydor have earned rings, with Sydor claiming two. Conversely, 10 Red Wings have combined to account for 23 championships.

Indeed, Detroit defenseman Chris Chelios won the Cup while playing for Montreal in 1986. That's one year before Sidney Crosby of the Penguins was born, and two before teammate Jordan Staal entered the world.

It's impossible to know how many of the Penguins, especially the younger ones, will respond to making their first appearance on the game's greatest stage. Veteran right winger Marian Hossa, though, believes they should -- and will -- approach the final like any other best-of-seven.

"We just have to think about it like another round," he said. "It's a big bubble -- lots of media, lots of distractions --but a lot of these young players are smart enough to realize that it's just another game."

Except it really isn't. Because when one of the teams wins four of them, it is presented with a large silver trophy, there is much revelry and lots of people in the city where that club is based call off work the next day.

Sydor, who has appeared in four Cup finals, appreciates the importance of not getting overwhelmed by the significance of the series -- "You can't look at the big picture," he said. "It's still a game of hockey" -- but also acknowledges that it really can't be confused with, say, a conference quarterfinal.

"When you get to the final, knowing that it's either your team or the other team that's going to be taking that trophy home, you don't want to be sitting there watching them hoist it," he said. "You have possibly four games, at most seven, left in your season. You just give it your all."

That hasn't been a problem for the Penguins this spring and is a big part of the reason they've won 12 of their 14 games.

"We've earned the right to be here and give ourselves this opportunity," Crosby said.

What they will do with that opportunity is unclear. What seems certain is that, in two days, many of the Penguins are going to be introduced to a game they have only heard about until now.

"In the final, it seems like everybody makes another step," Gonchar said. "The game becomes even faster and more physical. The game goes to another level. That's the thing I remember about '98, and that's the thing we're going to see starting Saturday."

Dave Molinari can be reached at .


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