It seemed inevitable that Pittsburgh's young stars would one day help lead the club to the Stanley Cup final. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Penguins made it a reality Sunday afternoon with a decisive Game 5 win to clinch the NHL's Eastern Conference championship.
Ryan Malone got goals from a pair of deflections, with Malkin, Marian Hossa, Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis also scoring in the 6-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Marc-Andre Fleury made 21 saves for his third shutout of the playoffs, while Sidney Crosby had two assists and now leads the post-season scoring race with 21 points.
The Penguins are a perfect 8-0 at Mellon Arena in the playoffs. The last time they lost at home was on Feb. 24.
Pittsburgh will now await the winner of the Western Conference final between the Detroit Red Wings and the Dallas Stars. As a franchise, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup both times they previously made the final, in 1991 and 1992.
Under coach Michel Therrien, the Penguins have turned their fortunes around in remarkably short fashion. Just two seasons ago, Crosby's first in the NHL, Pittsburgh finished a lowly 22-46-14, the second-worst record in the league.
Malkin and Staal impressed as rookies last season, joining Crosby to help turn the Penguins into playoff contenders.
"We tried to learn as quick as we could and gain experience as quick as we could. We have great veterans, and we've continued to do a good job so far," Crosby said.
But even Therrien said he wouldn't have believed such a turnaround was possible.
"Not two years ago, to be honest," Therrien told CBC's Hockey Night in Canada. "They got the right attitude and obviously they got some talent. But they really buy in to what we try to accomplish with that team."
While the vast majority of the players will be getting their first taste of Stanley Cup action, there are some veterans who've been to the finals. Among the regulars, Petr Sykora, Sergei Gonchar, Georges Laraque and the currently injured Gary Roberts have Cup experience.
Backup goaltender Ty Conklin and Darryl Sydor, who hasn't played since the end of the regular season, also have been there.
Holding true to the superstition not followed in any other North American team sport, Crosby posed with the Wales Trophy but refused to touch it.
"What we want is in the next round," Crosby said.
Richards takes loss hard
The Flyers also exceeded expectations this season, making it to the penultimate round of the NHL playoffs just one year after finishing at the bottom of the league standings.
"It was a team that was very close in the dressing room. We enjoyed being around each other and had a lot of fun," said an emotional Flyers centre Mike Richards.
Martin Biron, outstanding for Philadelphia through much of the playoffs, had a tough outing on Sunday. Biron finished with 19 saves, with half of Pittsburgh's goals coming from deflections and screens.
The first came just over two minutes into the game when Crosby's slapshot caromed off Malone's skate and into the net.
Midway through the period, the Flyers netminder spent too long behind his net and got tangled with Malone. Malkin picked up the loose puck at the side of the goal and stuffed it in for a 2-0 lead.
Philadelphia had few good scoring chances in the first but came out with more energy early in the second. Daniel Briere and Richards had opportunities that were set aside by Fleury.
"Hockey's a funny business," Richards said. "Sometimes it can go your way, sometimes it can go against you, but give them a lot of credit. They came out hard, they capitalized on the chances early."
The Penguins were fired up by Fleury's saves, and their captain put them in command.
Crosby created a turnover in his own end and then up ice dished back to Hossa, who fired a slapshot past Biron for his ninth of the playoffs.
While Malone's first goal was somewhat fortuitous, his second was purely intentional. The big forward tipped Gonchar's shot from the point behind Biron.
Philadelphia couldn't get any offence going. Scottie Upshall looked like he might skate in alone on Fleury, but Rob Scuderi made up ground to make the defensive play.
Staal swooped into the slot in the period's final minute to bank a rebound home for a 5-0 score.
Dupuis scored early in the third past a screened Biron, and the only suspense left was whether Fleury would get his shutout. He helped his cause by sliding to make a pad save on Jeff Carter late in the game.