Penguins knock out Red Wings
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DETROIT -- Facing overwhelming odds as the road team in a Stanley Cup final Game 7, in throbbing Joe Louis Arena filled with 20,000-plus red-clad fanatics, including legendary Muhammad Ali decked out in the home team's red jersey, the Penguins took the Detroit Red Wings' best punch last night and earned -- I mean, earned -- the right to be called champions forever.
The big, blood-thirsty crowd saw its knockout, all right.
The mighty Red Wings went down for the count.
"Time after time, I think our team has proven that we're a true team," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said after the 2-1 win as a few hundred Pittsburgh hockey fans chanted "Let's Go Pens!" in the otherwise quiet arena.
"This is an amazing feeling."
It's hard to say what was more impressive about the win -- that the Penguins played nearly all of the final two periods without the injured Crosby (knee), that goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury stood tall and stopped all but one Detroit shot in a building where he had fished 11 pucks out from his net in the first three games of the series or that big-time, big-game forward Max Talbot scored the first two goals in the second period to send the team on to the Cup and immortality. It's not important, really. All that matters is that all of Pittsburgh gets to enjoy this remarkable accomplishment by a very special hockey club.
Champions forever, indeed.
"This is why I came back," said defenseman Brooks Orpik, who turned down the chance to make more elsewhere to re-sign with the Penguins after last season.
And the guy who chose not to come back?
You knew I'd get to Marian Hossa, didn't you?
As fun as the game was to watch, the most enjoyable part came afterward when the boys lined up to accept congratulatory handshakes from the proud but beaten Red Wings, including Hossa, who had abandoned them after last season because he didn't think they were good enough to win a championship. "I was looking for the best chance to win the Cup," he said when he turned down the Penguins' multi-year, multi-million-dollar offer to sign a one-year deal with Detroit.
Do you think Crosby, Fleury, Talbot and the rest enjoyed being on their side of the Hossa handshake? Especially after they somehow held the world-class Hossa without a goal for the entire series?
But this win -- this terrific championship, the third in franchise history -- wasn't about what Hossa didn't do. It was about what the Penguins did.
They were phenomenal, winning the final two games of a series that was nothing but intense from start to finish.
The 2-1 win in Game 6 at Mellon Arena Tuesday night was wonderful, but all that did was give the Penguins the chance to play Game 7. The site: The Joe, a rink that had brutally demonized them in this Cup final and the one a year ago when the Red Wings were the better team and took the Cup in six games.
But the Penguins never blinked. Not staring down the Red Wings, the home crowd or those long odds against them. Only two road teams in NHL history had won a Game 7 for the Cup. No road team in any sport had won a title since the 1979 Pirates beat the Baltimore Orioles at old Memorial Stadium.
I'm sure I don't have to tell you that's a long time ago.
Mid-February seems like ages ago, too.
It was Feb. 15 that Penguins general manager Ray Shero fired coach Michel Therrien and replaced him with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Dan Bylsma. The team was five points out of a playoff spot with 25 games to play. All might not have been hopeless, but it sure seemed that way at the time.
But the Penguins went a stunning, 18-3-4 down the stretch. They took out the hated Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the first round of the playoffs, overcoming a 3-0, second-period deficit in Game 6 to win, 5-3. They survived the great Alex Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals in seven games, winning the final one on the road, 6-2. They turned all of Carolina blue with a four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference final.
And then down Detroit went last night.
"Where we've come since last year at this time, since the start of the season, since Feb. 15, wherever you want to pick up the story line, it's an amazing thing to have accomplished and earned," Bylsma said.
That the Penguins finished the job basically without Crosby merely added to their legend. Crosby was hurt early in the second period after a nasty collision along the boards with Detroit's Johan Franzen. He came back to play briefly in the third period but clearly wasn't himself. He finished the series with just one goal and two assists.
"Sid has bailed us out a million times," winger Bill Guerin said. "It was our time to get the job done for him."
Not with Talbot, who scored those two beautiful second-period goals. Sure, he had dreamed as a kid of scoring the winning goal in a Game 7. But two? I mean, whose dreams are that exotic?
"I don't think I ever dreamed of scoring two goals in an NHL game!" Talbot gushed. "This is the best day of my life."
Fleury made the 2-0 lead stand up by making 23 saves. Never again will the man have to hear that he is not a big-time goaltender. "I'm so happy about that," said Talbot, perhaps Fleury's closest friend. After being pulled in the second period of the 5-0 loss in Game 5, Fleury bounced back to allow just a single goal in each of the final two pressurized games. Right to the end, the Red Wings challenged him. Literally, as the final second ticked off, he said no to Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom's great scoring chance.
So ends the Red Wings' run as Stanley Cup champions.
The Penguins are the NHL's new kings.
All hail the new kings.
First Published June 13, 2009 12:54 am