The Pittsburgh Penguins will travel Friday to Detroit, the city called Hockeytown, for their second Stanley Cup final in as many seasons against the Red Wings.
The Penguins appear to have everything going for them: momentum from a conference finals sweep, two of the NHL's best players in high gear, and the kind of fervent support that franchises in some higher-profile sports wish they had.
There's only one thing missing — a Stanley Cup, at least one of more recent vintage than those won by the Mario Lemieux-led Penguins of 1991 and 1992.
The Red Wings have raised the cup four times since then, and the league's most polished and reliable group of winners gave the Penguins a lesson in what it takes to be a champion last spring.
The Penguins had lost only two games in three playoff rounds before being dominated during 4-0 and 3-0 losses that opened the finals in Detroit, and they never recovered before losing in six games.
"It was kind of a shell shock," Penguins defenceman Rob Scuderi said Thursday.
"We were watching too much," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "We were waiting to see what it was going to be like and, by that time, it was too late."
The Penguins remember how frustrating it felt to realize they weren't quite good enough, and they're convinced the experience of losing in the finals was the best possible preparation for winning it this time.
"We have that confidence in the dressing room that we've been through it, and it's a great feeling," Penguins forward Max Talbot said. "I think we'll be ready for them."
Pittsburgh appears to own several important advantages over the beaten-up Red Wings.
The Penguins are relatively healthy, NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin and Crosby are rolling with a playoff-high 28 points apiece, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said "the emotion and the stress, all the stuff we didn't know" last year are missing.
'They're skilled guys — and tough'
The Red Wings missed defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom for two games and forward Pavel Datsyuk for three games of the Western Conference final, though they're hoping both will return for Game 1 on Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7:30 p.m. ET).
Even if they don't, the Red Wings are the Red Wings, and the Penguins knew from the moment they lost to them a year ago they'd probably have to beat Detroit to prove they indeed are the best.
"Watching their Game 4 against Chicago, where they won 6-1, I don't know if we want to say we were laughing at the situation, but it was something we went through last year," Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik said. "You can try to run them out of the building, be physical on them, but they're skilled guys — and tough."
The question is whether the Red Wings are playing it at the same level they were last year.
They've added Marian Hossa, who defected from Pittsburgh after last season, but injuries are cutting into their skill and depth (Kris Draper, Andreas Lilja).
The Red Wings are wondering if controlling Rick Nash of Columbus and Chicago's Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews was adequate preparation for trying to slow Malkin and Crosby.
Malkin had six goals and three assists in four games against the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final; Crosby has a league-high 14 goals.
"Crosby and Malkin are running away with the scoring lead in the playoffs and, if we let them continue to run wild, it will be hard for us to win the series," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "You can't stop players that good, but we can't let them do what they did against Carolina."
The Penguins believe they've already benefitted from losing to Detroit last year, saying it helped them rally from a 2-0 deficit against Alexander and the Washington Capitals in the conference semifinals.
"I thought no one panicked, in part because of the experience we had last year," Scuderi said.
Now, after a full off-season and regular season, six weeks of playoffs, the NHL is right back where it was last year: Pittsburgh vs. Detroit for the Stanley Cup, with Sid the Kid again going for his first championship and the oh-so-successful Red Wings trying for yet another one.
"Certainly two of the marquee franchises going toe-to-toe again in the finals, it's something we all can appreciate even when we're in the midst of it," Penguins rookie head coach Dan Bylsma said.