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Frank Seravalli

TSN Senior Hockey Reporter


PITTSBURGH - There was a brief moment, a quiet peace amid the roar.

Sidney Crosby already did the heavy lifting. He grabbed the Prince of Wales Trophy, in accordance with Penguins superstition, and rested it on the ledge of the bench.

When he put it down, Crosby took a quick spin to centre ice. It was a rare second in the spotlight for a giant in the game who gives his best daily effort to deflect it.

He saluted the 18,638 patrons who needed a pacemaker to survive Game 7 and glanced around at a deafening Consol Energy Center. Gold rally towels littered the ice in ecstasy.

The view was one Crosby remembered, but the feeling was growing fleeting.

Seven years is a lifetime, after all. Ask the 13 Penguins etched on the 2009 Stanley Cup whom the game has long passed by.

“You know, it’s not easy,” Crosby said. “Having gone through a few of these, getting to the Final at 20 or 21, I think you have more of an appreciation now.”

After six bitter springs, the last few spent in the sweaty shadow of a nuclear button, the Pittsburgh Penguins are once again Eastern Conference champions.

They staved off the emotional swing of a dramatic return by Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos to outlast the Lightning, 2-1, in Game 7 to advance to the fifth Stanley Cup final in franchise history. Pittsburgh will host the Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks in Game 1 on Monday night.

It wasn’t supposed to be this long, though, in between trips.

Not with the way Crosby and the Penguins tore through the NHL nearly a decade ago. They were the untouchable juggernaut, the team with the two-headed monster up front in Crosby and Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin, plus Norris Trophy finalist Kris Letang on the backend.

No one could have forecast how the seven years unfolded between. The upsets, the concussions, the salary cap constraints, the regime changes that came as a result.

It left the five remaining from 2009 - Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury - scratching their heads at times, wondering if they would get another shot.

Or would the core be blown up before then?

“You always wonder,” Kunitz said. “The expectation’s always been to get to this level. It’s unrealistic to get there. It’s tough to get to. Some years, it’s tough. You have a bad matchup, an injury. It’s a tough league to win in.”

The Penguins’ stars decided early on they were not going to be denied on home ice, not with what they had longed for for so long so close to their grasp. Rookie Bryan Rust channeled his inner Max Talbot to deliver both goals in the winner-take-all deathmatch.

The Stanley Cup playoffs have a way of introducing the unlikeliest of heroes. Rust, 24, played that role in Game 7 despite having just five goals in his entire NHL regular season career.

“The way he shot that puck, he was probably dreaming of that for a long time,” Kunitz said of Rust’s first strike.

Game 7 was the first six games of the Eastern Conference final in a nutshell. The Penguins controlled pace and play for long stretches, piling up shots and chances, but struggled to gain any real separation from Tampa Bay.

No matter what, the Lightning were still always one breath away from overtime. The better team does not always win a seven-game series, as the Penguins well know, but they did on Thursday.

“They were a really tough opponent,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “They deserved to win tonight.”

The real irony for the Penguins, and even the Sharks, is that this is the year they broke through. The deck was stacked against them. The core was aging, the depth thinning.

“I don’t know that there’s a team in the league that’s faced more adversity since the starting of training camp,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “They’ve found a way.”

It goes to show that the Stanley Cup playoffs are sports’ best reality show.

Six months ago, Pittsburgh fired coach Mike Johnston. They were out of playoff position that day. Crosby appeared visibly frustrated throughout the start of the season, as he slinked to 157th in league scoring. Letang was off to the worst start of his career.

The Penguins earned the reputation around the NHL of being an uncoachable locker room filled with prima donna personalities.

“They also said Sidney Crosby was done,” Letang said.

Then, to rally and get in, but sneak through this gauntlet? And do it with a 21-year-old rookie goaltender, with heroics from Rust and the HBK Line? The odds would have been astronomical.

“I mean, the Rangers had our number in previous years,” Kunitz said. “Then going against Washington, who ran away with the league and dominated so many games. And then to play aa team like Tampa, who had unbelievable pace to their game and young guys that score. We battled some good teams.”

It is unbelievable that the Penguins didn’t break through before. Three first-round exits, two second-round tiptoes, and one inexplicable trip to the Conference final have sandwiched these Stanley Cup final runs.

“We were in pretty good spots for a number of those years going into the playoffs,” Crosby admitted. “It was just the opportunity that was missed, maybe what could’ve been? You look at the (2013) Eastern Conference final, we lost to Boston. Everything seemed to be going well and we got swept in the conference final. I think as far as the guys that have been a while, we’ve always believed in each other. Just trying to get back is not easy.”

All of the failures, the embarrassing first-round flops, are in the rearview mirror now. There is work to be done, but those follies made the thrill of Game 7 taste a little bit sweeter.

“I think we all know, the guys that were in here, we should have maybe been at this point more,” Kunitz said. “But whatever the reason is, now we’re back.”

Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli