Stanley Cup playoffs: Penguins have tough act to follow
Penguins forward Maxime Talbot on pursuing the Stanley Cup: "You want it so bad that, at some point, you forget that you're tired or what it takes, and you just do it because you want it so bad."
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The Penguins, one suspects, would like to shrug it off as a historical curiosity.
Nothing more than a statistical quirk that provides interesting fodder for talk shows, message boards and other forums where nuggets of knowledge routinely get blown into proportion.
After all, when a team is the reigning title-holder in its league, why would it want to fixate on how repeat champions have become a rarity there?
The hard reality, though, is that if the Penguins manage to earn another Stanley Cup this spring, they will become just the third team in more than two decades to pull that off. Detroit did it in 1997 and '98 as did the Penguins in '91 and '92.
Dynasties once were the norm in the NHL. Since the mid-1970s, Montreal and the New York Islanders both won four Cups in a row, while Edmonton picked up five in a seven-year span.
These days, it is noteworthy that the Penguins and Red Wings simply have made it to the Cup final each of the past two years. That is something no team had done since New Jersey in 2000 and '01.
"The league is a lot more even now than it ever has been," Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "It's harder to win games. A lot of teams have a legit chance of winning the Cup, too."
The Penguins and Red Wings remain on that list, although the Penguins were challenged by Ottawa in the first round of these playoffs and Detroit needed seven games to get past Phoenix.
Few objective observers would rule out the possibility of them colliding in a Cup-final rubber match a month or so from now, but Red Wings center Kris Draper noted that stringing together extended playoff runs can complicate the already-difficult task of surviving deep into the postseason.
"With us and Pittsburgh, both teams have played a lot of hockey over the last couple of years," he said. "You know that, at some point during the season, it's going to take its toll on you."
Lidstrom and Draper played on the team that won Cups in 1997 and '98. Troy Loney was on the Penguins' squad that picked up consecutive championships in the early 1990s and believes that feat is even more demanding now than it was then.
"These guys go later in the season," Loney said. "They are not done until the middle of June. That's crazy."
Most who have been through it seem to agree that fatigue can become an issue at some point. What there is no consensus on is whether the grind is tougher mentally or physically.
"I think it's the mental [aspect]," Penguins right winger Bill Guerin said. "It's emotional. There are a lot of ups and downs, a lot of peaks and valleys, and you have to try to remain as even-keeled as possible.
"You are going to have an emotional night and win, and you're going to have an emotional night and lose. You have to be able to control that, to harness everything and not get ahead of yourself."
Teammate Max Talbot, however, thinks competitive instincts can override mental weariness.
"The mental grind is not that hard because you want it so bad," he said. "You want it so bad that, at some point, you forget that you're tired or what it takes, and you just do it because you want it so bad."
Draper suggested that opponents of the Penguins -- or any other clubs with a title freshly engraved on their resume -- do not have to deal with mental fatigue, because simply sharing a slab of ice with them is enough to ratchet up their intensity.
"Probably the No. 1 thing is, teams are gunning for you," he said. "Everyone gets excited to play the defending Stanley Cup champs, whether it's in October or it's in April.
"You want to measure yourself against the best team in the league, and, when you are that measuring stick, you don't have many easy nights."
That is especially true now that the NHL operates in a salary-cap system. The days when teams such as Philadelphia, the New York Rangers and Detroit could stack their lineups with high-priced talent ended when the league's current labor deal took effect.
"Before free agency, before salary caps, you could keep teams together for 10 years," Guerin said. "Now, guys move around."
At the same time, the Penguins say, they will not abandon the idea of winning back-to-back Cups, just because it has not been done for a dozen years.
"It's not like, 'Hey, we got one. Let's stop there,' " Talbot said. "I think with leaders like [Sidney Crosby], it's like, 'We can do it again. Let's prove something.' "
First Published April 29, 2010 12:00 am