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Young Pens make second chance count

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Before he ever took the ice in an NHL game, Sidney Crosby was dubbed "The Next One" in anticipation that he could have the same kind of impact on the NHL that Wayne Gretzky had a few decades earlier.

As unfair as it is to compare any hockey player to "The Great One" or any team with the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, the Pittsburgh Penguins and their 21-year-old captain made that connection seem almost justifiable by winning the Stanley Cup title on Friday night.

Even though Crosby missed the second half of the clinching victory due to an injury, he was able to skate the Cup around Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. That victory lap went a long way to validating the hype that has surrounded Crosby since his spectacular youth hockey career began in Nova Scotia.

Pittsburgh beat the Red Wings in seven games to claim the franchise's first championship since 1992, outlasting a Red Wings squad that is full of talented veterans. It was a revenge series, as the Penguins exacted retribution on Detroit for beating them in six games in the Cup Finals a year ago. Pittsburgh was able to clinch the series on the road as well, returning the favor from last spring when the Red Wings hoisted the Cup on the Pens' home ice.

The Penguins quick turnaround from Stanley Cup runner-up to champion does have a fairly recent precedent, and, fittingly, it involves Gretzky and his Oilers.

A quarter of a century ago, Edmonton ended a dynasty by beating the New York Islanders in the 1984 Stanley Cup Finals -- one year after the Isles beat the Oilers for their fourth straight championship.

This year's Penguins were the first club to get back to the Cup Finals the year after losing since the 1984 Oilers, and like Gretzky and company, Pittsburgh was able to make the most of their second chance.

Like that Oilers team, the Penguins were able to overcome lofty expectations and win a championship earlier than most folks thought was possible.

However, in many ways, Crosby was surpassed by his fellow Penguins centerman Evgeni Malkin this season, making a case that the Gretzky role on this Pittsburgh club is still up for grabs. After all, Malkin earned the NHL's scoring title during the regular season and was named as a finalist for the Hart Trophy.

Malkin, who is just over a year older than Crosby, was also named MVP of the playoffs, claiming the Conn Smythe Trophy after scoring 36 points -- the highest point total in a single playoff year since Gretzky had 40 for Los Angeles in 1993.

Crosby, meanwhile, became the youngest captain in NHL history to win a Stanley Cup title, beating out Gretzky, of course, who was just over 23 years of age when he first won it all in 1984. Sid the Kid won't even turn 22 until this August.

And it's not like Crosby was eating Malkin's dust during this postseason, after all he tallied 31 points to finish second to his Russian teammate in playoff scoring.

The debate about who is Pittsburgh's best player will go on for quite some time, but that is a debate for fans and the media. The Penguins have both players under contract for several years and more Cups will be expected in the ensuing seasons. If the titles keep coming, it shouldn't matter to Pittsburgh if Crosby is the dominant player, or if Malkin is, or if it's too close to call.

Beginning with the title in 1984, the Oilers went on to win five Stanley Cups in a span of seven seasons and all but the franchise's last title in 1990 came with Gretzky in tow.

We don't know how many Stanley Cup titles (if any) Crosby, Malkin and the Penguins will add to their resume in the future, but arriving at the promised land ahead of the Oilers' dynasty is a good place to start.

HEARTBREAK FOR HOSSA YET AGAIN

Up until Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, Marian Hossa's decision to snub the Pittsburgh Penguins contract offer in order to sign with the Detroit Red Wings had an excellent chance at paying off.

The Red Wings, however, were surprisingly beaten on home ice by the Penguins in the decisive battle and Hossa's offseason choice officially became a blunder.

Hossa, of course, was on the losing end in the Cup Finals last season when he skated for the Penguins in their series loss to Detroit. Just weeks after watching the Red Wings defeat Pittsburgh for the 2008 Stanley Cup title, Hossa decided to leave a multi-year deal with the Penguins on the table and ink a one-year pact with Detroit instead.

Some folks felt the choice made sense. Detroit didn't need to unload any key players in order to add Hossa to the mix, so the Red Wings entered the 2008-09 season as a favorite to repeat as Cup champs.

Others, however, felt that Hossa's jump to Detroit was an attempt at backing his way into a championship and that such a brazen move would only succeed in angering the hockey gods. I'm not big on superstition, so let's just say that Hossa made an error in judgment in assuming his best chance to win a Cup was in Motown.

Part of the blame for Detroit's loss to the Pens should fall to Hossa, who had just three assists in the Cup Finals this year after notching three goals and seven points for Pittsburgh in last spring's championship round. But, the real reason for the Penguins' triumph is that Crosby, Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal and the rest of Pittsburgh's young nucleus improved exponentially this season. Add Hossa's production to the Pens and their rise to the top would have been even smoother.

Hossa will be on the market once again when free agency begins in a few weeks and although it's uncertain where he will wind up, re-signing with Detroit is a strong possibility.

However, if the Penguins come calling, don't be surprised if Hossa once again opts to hitch his wagon to the NHL's most recent championship club. If that happens, you might want to consider Hossa's track record and bet the house on Detroit winning the Stanley Cup in 2010.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo


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