Therrien's scolding might have been essential shock therapy in Pittsburgh, but it was merely shocking around the NHL. The Penguins had a reputation as a team whose inmates ran the asylum, and the assumption was that they merely had a new head lunatic. "I saw it on TV and thought either that's really going to work or it really isn't," said Ray Shero, then the assistant G.M. in Nashville. "For pretty much everybody in the league it was, Did you see what the guy in Pittsburgh did?"
Within six months Shero would be Therrien's boss, replacing Patrick. Although Sawyer had publicly declared that anyone taking the job would inherit Therrien, who had two years left on his contract, Shero says he would have been allowed to make a change. But the Penguins didn't need a new coach, just a new culture. The franchise was mired in the '90s—the 1890s. This was a number 2--pencil organization, one without Internet hookup in the coaches' offices. Despite the turmoil surrounding the team's potential move—"My wife held off buying curtains and drapes because we didn't know if we'd be there more than a year," Shero says—the new G.M. knew he needed to bring the Penguins up to code.
By his count, he fired "15 or 18" people. He changed the layout of the Mellon Arena dressing room. He helped reshape a team that was hungry. Literally. Among the litany of turning points, plans for a new venue were less appreciated than the arrival of a new menu. As players settled in for the first flight of the 2006--07 exhibition season, instead of the standard pepperoni pizza or chicken fingers with French fries that had passed for nutrition on Pittsburgh charters—"carnival food," Whitney called it— they were offered sushi appetizers, chicken and pasta, steak and potatoes, and a choice of water or a sports drink instead of beer. Whitney surveyed the gustatory bounty and yelled, "Hot damn, we're in the NHL."
NOW PITTSBURGH is in the finals, a testament to how quickly fortunes can change: The Calgary Flames went from missing the playoffs for the seventh straight year to Game 7 of the 2004 final, and Carolina vaulted from 30th place in 2002--03 to a Stanley Cup in '06. The difference is that these young Penguins don't have a jerry-built quality to them but an air of durability reminiscent of the Oilers of the early 1980s. After hanging on in Pittsburgh by their thumbs, the Penguins look solid as steel.
If one game proved their mettle, it was on Jan. 19 in Montreal. Fleury had been out six weeks with a high ankle sprain and Crosby missed the first of 28 games with his injured ankle. In Canada there was widespread debate over whether the Penguins, then second in the East, would even make the playoffs. Dany Sabourin, the third-string goalie, shut out the Canadiens that night while Malkin began a push that would carry him to a 106-point season. "That was the night Geno took off," defenseman Brooks Orpik said of Malkin, who had an empty-net goal in the 2--0 win, but ruled all 200 feet. "There were lots of doubts outside the team and we were aware of what people were saying, but we were confident."
At the time the victory seemed to announce nothing more than that there could be life without Crosby, but in retrospect it had revealed the championship qualities of a team that now was capable of winning a 6--5 track meet or a 1--0 trench war. "We showed we were a complete team [this season]," Crosby said. "Every game's not going to be to your team's strength. We have to be patient sometimes, and we proved we could play that way. And if you want to skate up and down with us, yeah, we can do that too."
This could be the June of the Penguins.