STOP US if you've read this before: MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. While the inevitable headline neatly summarizes Pittsburgh's bold trek to the Stanley Cup finals in a mere 14 postseason games, march implies military precision or at least some semblance of order, which, in the larger context of this oft-troubled franchise, is a hilarious conceit. The saga of Pittsburgh's return to the finals for the first time since 1992, when it won its second straight Cup, has been more LURCH OF THE PENGUINS. ¶ The team that brushed aside the Philadelphia Flyers 6--0 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday—Pittsburgh won its 16th straight home game before a 64th consecutive sellout—is not far removed from its stumbling days, a five-year stretch of persistent losing, three near changes in ownership, the threat of relocation to Kansas City, Mo., and an 11th-hour arena deal that didn't firmly affix team to city until 14 months ago. Having twice filed for bankruptcy since joining the NHL in the 1967 expansion, most recently in '98, the Penguins are now poised to write a new chapter with captain Sidney Crosby and sidekick Evgeni Malkin, splendid supporting forwards such as Jordan Staal, underrated defensemen, a truth-telling coach and capable goaltending from the Smiling Bandit, Marc-André Fleury. However it unfolds, this one will be more glorious than Chapter 11.
THE METAMORPHOSIS began with the drafting of Crosby, a reminder that it helps in hockey to have balls—lottery balls. When the Penguins won the lottery on July 22, 2005 (they had finished with a league-worst 58 points before the '04--05 lockout) president Ken Sawyer, representing Pittsburgh at the proceedings, actually took a step back in amazement. That was the last step back for the Penguins, who selected Crosby eight days later. Ticket sales, which had declined to an average of 11,877, the Penguins' lowest in nearly two decades, surged instantly. "That was a seminal moment because it told me the marketplace, the fan base, was here," Sawyer, now the team's CEO, says. "This was a hockey town, a hockey burg. We were working hard on an arena deal, and with that you sign a 30-year lease. You want to have a feel that the marketplace is there." The deal for a $290 million arena was belatedly finalized on March 13, 2007.
No matter what corporation brands the building, which is scheduled to open downtown in time for the 2010--11 season, it will be the House That Sid Built. Crosby led playoff scoring with 21 points through Sunday, but the most impressive number in his spring portfolio is three: the seasons he needed to lead his team to the Stanley Cup finals. Wayne Gretzky took four to carry the Edmonton Oilers that far; Mario Lemieux, the Penguins' chairman and Crosby's landlord, took seven in Pittsburgh. The integers that define greatness do not appear in just the goals and assists column.
Of course to split the Penguins' goofy history into B.C. and A.D.—Before Crosby and After Draft—is to diminish the significance of Malkin, who was chosen second in the 2004 draft, and of Fleury, who was taken No. 1 in '03. As Sawyer says, "If you go to the bottom and stay there a couple of years"—the Penguins placed no higher than 26th in the league between 2000--01 and '05--06—"good things [can] happen." The Penguins stooped, then conquered, after collecting cornerstones that also included Staal, the checking-line center drafted second in 2006.
The bricks of the franchise needed mortar; in fact, they were also treated to mortar fire by a new head coach. Michel Therrien was promoted in December 2005 from AHL Wilkes-Barre after Craig Patrick, the Hall of Fame G.M., fired Ed Olczyk. Therrien had led Montreal to the second round in 2002, during which he essentially cost the Canadiens a pivotal Game 4 decision by vehemently arguing a referee's call and drawing an unsportsmanlike penalty. That gave the Hurricanes a five-on-three power play and fueled their three-goal third-period comeback. Therrien compounded his gaffe by having fourth-liner Bill Lindsay take a defensive-zone face-off in overtime; the lost draw led to Carolina's winning goal.
If the modern Penguins were born on the day they won the Crosby lottery, their baptism occurred courtesy of Therrien at the Igloo on Jan. 10, 2006. This was a three-minute, 45-second baptism by fire. With neither the incredulity of Jim (Playoffs?!) Mora nor the rage of Dennis (Crown Their Ass) Green, Therrien, disgusted after a 3--1 loss to Edmonton, excoriated his players during a press conference, describing the game as "a pathetic performance" and saying, "half of the team doesn't care." He added, "I really start to believe their goal is to be the worst defensive squad in the league—and they're doing a great job [at it]. They turn the puck over. They have no vision. They're soft. I've never seen a bunch of defensemen soft like this."
"We're playing in Columbus the next night, and I get to the plane and guys are saying, 'Did you hear what he said?'" defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "We weren't too happy. I don't want to say that it had to be said, but honestly we were a country club. We had missed the playoffs four years in a row. We'd lose seven of eight, win two, lose three more, and after the game we're like, O.K., so we lost to Edmonton, let's go play Columbus tomorrow. This was a wake-up call."
So awakened, the Penguins proceeded to lose 6--1 to the Blue Jackets. But Therrien remembers seeing positives in the rout. In truth, what he saw were six fights. Although Pittsburgh failed to win even one—left winger Ryan Malone grinned last week as he recalled being cuffed by forward Michael Rupp—the mere acts of engagement pleased him. "They looked like a team that cared," Therrien said last week. "The little light at the end of the tunnel, I started to see it that day."
"Things had been a little too lax, but that's just the way it was here," Crosby said. "Was [Therrien] really that far off [in his comments] given the way we were playing?"
(Incidentally Whitney, Rob Scuderi and Sergei Gonchar, the three current Penguins defensemen who were on the ice that night against Edmonton, were a combined +8 against Philadelphia. Gonchar made the play of the series, hustling back to make a lunging sweep-check of the puck from the Flyers' Mike Richards on a shorthanded breakaway in a 4--1 Game 3 win. Soft? No longer.)