Penguins fly into finals
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With a berth in the Stanley Cup finals secured in emphatic fashion, Ryan Malone unlaced his skates as a media horde descended on a Penguins' locker room adorned with T-shirts and caps proclaiming Eastern Conference champions.
"It's a madhouse in here," he noted yesterday at Mellon Arena.
Then Mario Lemieux, beaming a megawatt smile, maneuvered his way through the throng to extend a congratulatory hand to the game's No. 1 star and offer a brief but poignant message: "Good job."
Mr. Malone scored two goals and assisted on another -- his first goal coming 2 minutes, 30 seconds into the game to set the tone -- in a 6-0 whitewashing of the Flyers that vaulted the Penguins into the National Hockey League championship round for the first time in 16 years.
The Penguins will face the winner of the Detroit-Dallas series, which the Red Wings lead, three games to two, going into tonight's game in Dallas.
In winning the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Penguins compiled a 12-2 record, and for the first time in the history of the franchise, they dispatched the Flyers in a playoff round, capturing this one by four games to one. The Flyers had won all three previous times the teams had met in the post season. But when the teams lined up for the traditional handshake yesterday, it was the Penguins who received congratulations for moving on.
"It didn't matter who we played in the first three rounds. We just wanted to give ourselves a chance for the next round," Mr. Malone said. "Our goal wasn't to get there. Our goal is to get the whole thing done."
Just three years ago, when the torch had been passed to Sidney Crosby, the Penguins finished last in the Eastern Conference. Yesterday, the team captain, not yet legally old enough to purchase a celebratory drink, accepted the Prince of Wales Trophy at center ice from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. But he and the entire team took great pains to avoid touching the trophy because it is considered bad luck, and hockey players are notoriously superstitious.
"That's not the one we want to be holding," Mr. Crosby said.
The goal now is to win four more games to earn the right to hoist the Stanley Cup, the oldest trophy in North American sports. Like the banner in Mellon Arena says: "It weighs only 35 lbs. but takes an entire team to lift."
Still, the vanquishing of the Flyers, whose motto coming into the season was "Vengeance Now," was a satisfying subplot. Both teams entered the NHL as expansion teams in 1967 and both have won a pair of Stanley Cups, but the Penguins have lost more regular-season games to the Flyers than any other franchise.
"For us, it's extra special to beat the Flyers," said Max Talbot, who is playing on a broken foot suffered in the last round against the New York Rangers. "The guys were tired of the Flyers winning against us. We did it for the fans."
The Penguins once went 15 years -- from 1974 to 1989 -- without winning a game in Philadelphia. When that horrid 0-39-3 streak ended, Phil Bourque said it was "like taking the needles out of the voodoo doll. It was so one-sided it was almost comical."
During the regular season, the Penguins had lost all four games played between the two teams in Philadelphia, but they won Game 3 on Flyers ice and three times at home in their quest for the Cup. They are unbeaten at home in eight playoff games thus far.
The Flyers, who had beaten Washington and the No. 1 seeded Montreal to earn a spot in the conference finals, got an emotional boost when their top defensive player, Kimo Timonen, was able to play despite having a blood clot in his right ankle. But nothing could stop the Penguins, it seemed, and what few chances the Flyers generated were turned aside by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
A standing-room-only crowd of 17,132, buttressed by several thousand more fans watching outside on a big screen TV, relished every moment of beating their nemesis by a virtual touchdown. For once, they were able to chant, "Go Home Flyers." They stood as one in the final moments, and some even endured a cold drizzle to gather around the ramps of Gate Two to continue the celebration. Cup Fever, a delirium that infects hard-core fans and ordinary citizens who may not know the difference between the blue line and a checkout line, has taken over the city.
"The playoffs are such a wonderful time of the year," said Jack Riley, who was the team's first general manager back in 1967. "You see people wearing the jerseys and the team colors. Crowds are coming to the arena to watch the games outside on TV. Cup Fever is something to talk about and read about. It's great for the city."
The trophy was originally purchased by Lord Stanley of Preston in 1893 to award to the top hockey team in the Dominion of Canada. The Penguins will have at least one day off before resuming preparations in the bid to claim the grail.
"I don't know if it's sunk in yet," said Mr. Malone, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area and played one of his best games in one of his biggest games to date. "It's what you play hockey for -- the best prize there is out there."
During a season in which they won the Atlantic Division and have now dispatched Ottawa, the Rangers and the Flyers, the Penguins have maintained a focus by noting they are happy but not content.
"We got all 20 guys on the ice pulling in the same direction," Mr. Malone said. "We still have a long way to go. There's nothing to celebrate yet."
EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS
First Published May 19, 2008 12:00 am