Four seasons later, Penguins' 2009 ring still sits alone


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The Penguins, of course, never said anything of the sort. Not publicly, anyway.

That would have been too brash. Too brazen. Too far out of character.

Doesn't mean they didn't think about it, though.

And they probably should have.

There's no question plenty of people outside the organization did.

Indeed, when the core of their team -- guys like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik and Marc-Andre Fleury -- came together in the middle of the last decade, the most popular question about the Penguins was not whether they could win a Stanley Cup, but whether one hand would be enough to contain all the rings they'd have a chance to earn.

Not because they'd be competing against inferior talent, but because the combination of bad hockey (which yielded lots of high draft choices) and terrific luck (which led to them getting Crosby's rights in the 2005 draft lottery) had allowed them to assemble a group of almost unbounded potential.

That promise began to be realized in the spring of 2008, when the Penguins surged to the Stanley Cup final. A year later, they won a best-of-seven rematch with Detroit, and the party started.

Went on for quite a while, too. But eventually, the celebration stopped. And there hasn't been another since.

The primary reasons have varied -- sensational goaltending by Montreal's Jaroslav Halak in 2010, losing Crosby and Malkin to major injuries a year later, a total meltdown versus Philadelphia in 2012 and a sudden inability to score against Boston this past spring -- but the bottom line hasn't.

Despite being a fixture on the short list of serious Cup contenders for years, the Penguins have just one title to show for it as they prepare for the 2013-14 season.

Winning even one championship, of course, is an epic accomplishment, a feat of which most NHL players can only dream.

" 'Disappointed' is a strong word," Crosby said. "Would I rather be Chicago and have two? Yeah. But I'd [also] rather have more than two. I think a lot of guys would want one, as well."

Still, the bar of achievement for this team, whose lineup is laced with so many elite talents, is set far higher than for most franchises.

Ray Shero replaced Craig Patrick as general manager in 2006 and recognized even before accepting the job that the foundation of a perennial contender looked to be in place, with the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and Orpik already on the depth chart.

"I know there were always expectations, but these guys were 19, 20 years old when I came in," he said.

He noted that the Penguins reached the Cup final, then won a Cup, faster than many observers had anticipated, but also that they also have seen how an apparent title run can be derailed quickly.

Shero pointed to 2010-11, when the Penguins steamrolled the league through December, only to lose Crosby and Malkin to season-ending injuries.

"Things were clicking on all cylinders and then Sid got hurt and [Malkin] got hurt," Shero said. "It doesn't take much to turn the tide that way."

Fleury, who made a Cup-saving stop in the waning seconds of Game 7 against Detroit in 2009 but has had a run of sub-par playoff showings in recent years, said the young core players that year didn't really appreciate how difficult it can be to win championships at this level.

"In your mind, you're like, 'Oh, we can do this again,' " he said. "When we were going through those times, a lot of veterans were reminding us that this doesn't happen a lot. 'Make sure you do everything you can now, because this is our chance.' "

Shero cited the six-game loss to Philadelphia during Round 1 in 2012 as the most exasperating, simply because of "the way we played," but was quick to add that, "I have to be more concerned about looking forward than behind."

The same is true of his players, who insist they are focused on opportunities to come, not how many seasons they have invested in futile pursuit of Cups so far.

"I didn't really look at our age five years ago when we won -- we were all pretty young -- so I'm not going to start looking at our age now," Crosby said.

Smiling, he looked directly at 34-year-old linemate Pascal Dupuis, who was sitting a few feet away, and added, "I probably won't look at our age in seven years, when we're all still here except for [Dupuis]."

Dupuis yelped in mock protest, but Crosby's point was obvious: The Penguins aren't concerned that the window of opportunity for their core group to win championships will slam shut anytime soon.

"I don't think [Kris Letang] would have signed here for eight years or that I would have signed for 12 or [Malkin] for eight if we didn't believe that (they still had the potential to win Cups)," Crosby said.

"I think we're all big believers. We know it's not easy, but that's what we want."

That sentiment is echoed by Shero, the guy who decided the franchise's interests were best-served by negotiating those long-term deals with the likes of Crosby, Malkin and Letang.

"Are they capable of winning?" he said "The good news is, they're in the prime of their careers. It's not like these guys are 34 or 35. It's certainly right there for them, in terms of being a competitive team that should be pretty good. But a lot of things go into it, so we'll see where it goes."

Next up

Monday: Realignment: What will it look like and what will it mean.

Tuesday: A capsule look around the league by Dave Molinari. Also: A first look at the Penguins' roster moves as they get down to the NHL roster limit of 23 as well as the salary-cap ceiling of $64.3 million.

Wednesday: A position-by-position breakdown of the roster with which the Penguins will open the season.

Thursday: Opening night.

penguins

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG First Published September 29, 2013 4:00 AM


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