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MAXIME TALBOT SKATED DOWN THE LEFT WING, THE PUCK on his stick, Penguins teammate Tyler Kennedy churning along the right side and only Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall between them. This was midway through the second period of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, and the two-on-one break, with Pittsburgh already in front 1-0, held the series in the balance. Talbot crossed the Red Wings' blue line, skated past the Cup logo on the ice, and as he reached the top of the left circle and steadied his stick to shoot, a journey neared its conclusion. To get to the deciding match, Pittsburgh had revived a regular season that once seemed beyond hope, had pushed through two months of the postseason and near-elimination by the Capitals, and had overcome a two-games-to-none deficit in the finals. Long before those trials had come the dark years, 2001-02 through '05-06, that still haunted the faithful. The cash-poor Penguins finished each of those seasons buried at the bottom of the standings, as the crowds at the Igloo dwindled to a browbeaten few and the threat of relocation preyed upon the team. From those depths, the Penguins' ascension was now nearly complete.
The benighted era had just passed by the time of Talbot's first full season in Pittsburgh, 2006-07. Sidney Crosby was entrenched, as were Evgeni Malkin and goaltender Marc-André Fleury. The team qualified for its first playoffs in five years that season and then charged to the finals in '08. For Talbot, a perpetual font of humor and light at the center of the Penguins—once when Crosby was absent from a game-day skate in Toronto, Talbot donned Crosby's 87 jersey and skated impishly onto the ice, fooling many among the thousands on hand to watch—the team's lowest points occurred this year. On Feb. 15 the defending Eastern Conference champion Penguins were 27-25-5, had won just eight of their past 22 games and stood five points out of playoff position.
"Guys just weren't having fun, it was like no one wanted to come to the rink," Talbot recalled during the finals. "But we made some moves. New coach, new players, and then came that road trip."
When the Penguins set off to play Chicago on Feb. 27, Dan Bylsma had been installed as interim coach, promoted from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Baby Penguins to replace the gruff and defensive-minded Michel Therrien. Sergei Gonchar, the engine of the Pittsburgh backline, had returned after missing the season's first 56 games while recovering from shoulder surgery, and the physical winger Chris Kunitz had been acquired in a trade with Anaheim. Kunitz, who gave Pittsburgh a deeply needed edge, scored against the Blackhawks in his first game, and the Penguins won in overtime. Two nights later a three-point spurt from Malkin ensured a 4-1 win in Dallas. When the five-game road trip finally ended in Washington, the Penguins, adapting joyously to Bylsma's call for them to emphasize offense and press hard in their opponents' zone, had gone 5-0.
"Those games changed everything—our identity on the ice, and how we felt about ourselves," said defenseman Brooks Orpik. "We had been playing cautiously, playing not to make a mistake, which was a disaster. But after we won a few in a row, we grew confident and we started to be aggressive. Things just came together."
Bylsma, an AHL assistant coach just 10 months before, told reporters early on that he wanted Pittsburgh to again be "a team that other teams circle [on their schedule] and say, Boy, that's going to be a tough task." Mission accomplished, Dan. In their final 21 regular-season games the Penguins lost just twice in regulation. They made the playoffs going away.
And so now it was Game 7 of the finals, second period in Detroit. The game clock read 9:54, and Talbot had the puck on the wing. His was the finest of the Penguins' playoff beards, thick and full and reddish. After he had scored two goals in Game 3, Malkin, who along with Crosby was forming the most dangerous playoff duo since the days of Gretzky and Mess, had teased Talbot publicly for having bad hands. Talbot took the ribbing and embraced it, joking right along. Later he said, "This team is close. We've been coming to the rink early and staying late for months now. It makes us feel more together on the ice."
Nearing the face-off dot, Talbot hardly glanced across the ice to Kennedy, just kept gliding straight ahead, holding goaltender Chris Osgood in place. The far side of the net awaited, wide open, and bad-hands Talbot did not miss, whistling a high shot past Osgood's glove. Talbot curled around and slid to his knees in celebration, pumping his fist in triumph. There were 30 minutes left in Game 7, and the score was 2-0 Pittsburgh, and the Penguins' long march to the Stanley Cup was coming to an end.