RALEIGH, N.C. - They foiled Philly, overcame Ovechkin and crushed the Canes.
Now all that is left for the Pittsburgh Penguins is that one last elusive step that will bring a third Stanley Cup to Steeltown.
For the second consecutive season, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company will be in the Cup final, this time thanks to a 4-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in front of a depressed capacity crowd at the RBC Center last night.
The win allowed the Pens to easily sweep the Canes in four games, setting up a title showdown against either the Detroit Red Wings or Chicago Blackhawks for all the marbles.
The Red Wings lead the best-of-seven Western Conference final 3-1 heading into Game 5 Wednesday night at Joe Louis Arena. Should the Wings win that game, a Wings-Pens final will start Saturday night in Motown.
A year ago the Red Wings defeated the Pens 4-2 in the best-of-seven final to win the Stanley Cup. Should the two foes meet again, it would mark the first time that teams faced each other in back-to-back finals since the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders did it in 1983 and ‘84.
“Hopefully we know what to expect now after last year,” Crosby said. “You can talk all about experience but until you go through something like that, you don’t really understand how much you learn from it.”
In order to change his luck, Crosby this time around chose to hoist the Prince of Wales Trophy, which goes annually to the Eastern Conference champion.
“Last year we didn’t touch it and we ended up losing in the final,” he chuckled. “Maybe by changing things up, there will be a different outcome.”
To a man, the Pens claim the lasting image of the Red Wings skating around Mellon Arena with hockey’s Holy Grail almost 12 months ago has made them hungrier to complete the deal this time around.
“It was bitter to see that,” forward Jordan Staal admitted.
The road back hasn’t been easy.
In the first round the Pens survived a rugged six-game slugfest against Mike Richards and the arch-enemy Philadelphia Flyers. Then came an epic seven-game marathon against The Great Eight and the Washington Capitals, one in which Crosby outduelled Alexander Ovechkin in Game 7 to allow the Pens to advance.
The Eastern Conference final against the Hurricanes proved to be the Pens easiest series. With Canes goalie Cam Ward struggling throughout and sniper Eric Staal not able to find the back up the net until Game 4, Carolina never could find an answer for the defending conference champions.
“The experience from last year is a bit of a carryover for our confidence,” Pens defenceman Brooks Orpik said.
“Last year we got to the final and lost the first two games. Maybe we didn’t know how to react ... This year we know how to settle it down instead of it snowballing on us.”
Ruslan Fedotenko, Maxim Talbot, Bill Guerin and Craig Adams scored for the Pens. Staal, with his only goal of the series, replied for the Hurricanes.
With the scored tied 1-1 late in the first period, Ward committed the biggest gaffe of the series, one that spelled doom for Carolina.
With just 1:29 remaining, Talbot took a shot from just inside the blue line that deflected off the stick of Anton Babchuk and fluttered through the air. Instead of grabbing the puck, Ward whiffed on it, then could only watch as it dropped into the net, putting the Penguins up 2-1.
“I lost sight of it ... It’s one I’d like to have back,” Ward said.
It was a goal that will be seen on the blooper reels for a long time.
And it was the final dagger in the hearts of the Hurricanes.
Now the Penguins will wait to see who their opponent will be in the final.
Unlike 12 months ago, they hope to come out on top this time around.