Stanley Cup Pain May Lead to Penguins' Gain

Article excerpt

Even if he does not return to the Penguins next season, veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor believes they turned a significant corner with an elimination-preventing, triple-overtime victory in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final.

"You could totally see in that game how these young guys have grown," said Sydor, a two-time Cup winner who played in his fifth final series. "You could totally see they've become leaders before our eyes.

"(Game 5) was a big step for them."

That dramatic victory, which temporarily allowed the Penguins to stave off elimination in the Cup final, showed they possess grit to match their enviable skill.

The next big step, Sydor said, is for the Penguins to avoid believing Cup final appearances are their birthrights.

"Getting back is not a given," Sydor said. "I was (21) when Los Angeles went to the Cup final (1993). I thought we'd be back. We didn't make the playoffs again for five years."

The Penguins, who stormed through the playoffs with a 12-2 record before falling in six games to the machine-like Detroit Red Wings, are full of promise with young stars such as captain Sidney Crosby, 20, centers Evgeni Malkin, 21, and Jordan Staal, 19, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, 23.

As Cup champion Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said, "They just keep getting better and better."

But after a short summer recess to reflect on how far they've come - they are only two years removed from a 58-point regular season - the Penguins will open training camp in September with enormous expectations.

The Penguins have played before 67 consecutive sellouts at Mellon Arena. Game 6 of the Cup final was on 54 percent of locally turned- on televisions and rated the most watched NHL game in the United States since 1995, according to Neilsen Media Research. Their merchandise is top-selling, according to the league.

They are the NHL's selling point, their region's fresh-faced hockey heroes - and everybody, including franchise legend and current majority co-owner Mario Lemieux, believes better days are ahead.

"We really built this team to give us a chance to win (the Cup)," Lemieux said. "They've gained some experience. I'm sure they'll be better next time."

Lemieux's sentiment is shared by team director of player development Tom Fitzgerald, a veteran of 17 NHL seasons and member of the 1996 Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers.

Fitzgerald said this playoff run provided numerous signals the Penguins learned on-the-fly and improved over their two-month postseason journey.

"The longer you play into June accelerates the learning," Fitzgerald said. …