Pens developing a swagger

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Wayne Gretzky was 22 and Mark Messier just a few days older when the Edmonton Oilers first played for the Stanley Cup.

They seemed so young, so certain, so carefree. The famed Oilers team that went on to win four Cups -- five if you count the one after Gretzky -- had an immodest cockiness: They were great and they knew it.

Nothing quite like the Pittsburgh Penguins of today.

Except that Sidney Crosby is only 20 and Evgeny Malkin is one year older, and with similar youth and less of a supporting cast of kids who didn't know better, they appear to be on the same fast-track.

"I don't think we're cocky," Crosby said yesterday, too young to be able to assess the dynasty that won three Cups before he was born. "We're a confident group of guys who believe in each other. And we push each other. And you can't afford to be cocky."

The old Oilers were. In ways, it defined that team. They didn't just want to win, they wanted to sing on the bench, stay up all night. They were cocksure before they won a thing and worse afterwards.

They went to their first Cup final in 1983 after plowing through the Clarence Campbell Conference with an 11-1 record. So far, the Penguins have gotten to the Eastern Conference final having won eight of nine.

"It might have been different then," said Crosby, speaking for himself, Malkin and his team. "You know, the league is so competitive now. Maybe then, they were going into a building that night and they knew they could play okay and still win. That's not the case in the league anymore. You can't get away with that (today)."

Penguins coach Michel Therrien hates comparisons, all of them. He doesn't think his team has earned much of anything to be mentioned in the same breath with the great Oilers, or anybody else for that matter.

"We haven't won anything yet," Therrien said in a typical cryptic coaching answer. "If we end up winning the Stanley Cup ..."

He didn't complete the thought. He didn't have to.

His Penguins are four wins away from being one of the youngest teams in history to play for the Stanley Cup. This series is theirs to lose. How rare is this? Once upon a time, a Minnesota North Stars team with all kinds of kids and promise played for the Cup in 1981. Just never again. The Oilers, with Hall of Fame parts just about everywhere and the best 1-2 centres punch in history, were commanding and compelling.

So tonight, the best 1-2 punch in hockey -- and we're not talking about Georges Laraque -- will be on display for the Penguins. Crosby is the captain, conscience and leader of the Penguins and he still can't drink legally in most states. At 20 -- and really, can we order a recount on his age? -- he is as prepared and composed as any player could be. Malkin, two years younger than the great Fabian Brunnstrom, is the modern day Moose, full of power and energy, more skilled than Messier ever was, with greater size. The rest of the comparisons -- the greatest leader of all-time stuff -- will be answered in time.

"We have a lot to prove before we can try to put ourselves in that category," Crosby said. "But I can see the comparisons with the youth of our team, with the group of exciting players we have, and maybe the style of play. We have a lot of guys who are fun to watch."

When the Oilers won their first championship in 1984, they had just two players, Willy Lidstrom and Jaroslav Pouzar, who were over the age of 30. Both were complimentary players.

The Penguins stars are younger, but they do have Gary Roberts over 40 and Sergei Gonchar and Petr Sykora and Hal Gill and Jarkko Ruutu and Laraque, all over 30, to supply wisdom and leadership.

And it's not like the Philadelphia Flyers are exactly ancient either. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Brayden Coburn are all 23. Not exactly Gretzky, Messier and Coffey, but nothing to sneer at either.

In this series, youth and speed should prevail. The way it usually did for the Oilers of old. And after that, the possibilities seem endless.


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