On Feb. 15, 2009, Michel Therrien walked out of Penguins headquarters for the last time.
Eight months after coaching the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup final berth in 14 years, Therrien was out: his 47-point turnaround between the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons was not enough to overcome the reigning Eastern Conference champions’ 27-25-5 start.
Dan Bylsma, then-coach of the Penguins’ AHL affiliate, became the youngest head coach in the NHL when he inherited a team that was five points out of a playoff spot with just 25 games to go.
Most people in Western Pennsylvania — and probably eastern Michigan — know what happened next. The Penguins went 18-3-4, earning 40 points and the No. 4 seed, before tearing through the Eastern Conference en route to their second consecutive matchup against the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup final. After both teams went 3-0 at home in the final series, the Penguins won Game 7 and their first championship since 1992.
The 2009 championship run truly started the previous June, when the Penguins lost Game 6 of the 2008 Stanley Cup final on home ice. Barely acknowledging the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turnaround in which Pittsburgh went from the second-worst to the second-best team in the league in just two seasons, the team was open about the bitter taste left by the 2008 loss.
“The loss in the Stanley Cup brought the team closer together,” said defenseman Hal Gill, whose two years on the Penguins coincided with the two conference championships.
Key dates in Penguins history
Bylsma takes over
Then-GM Ray Shero decides enough's enough with Michel Therrien, fires him and promotes Dan Bylsma from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Bylsma required no time to acclimate to the NHL level, and it sparks an 18-3-4 finish to the regular season.
Stanley Cup 3.0
The Penguins' first Game 7 in a Stanley Cup final didn't lack for drama. Sidney Crosby hurts his knee. Max Talbot scores twice. Marc-Andre Fleury stops Nicklas Lidstrom in the final seconds.
But the team had to play without four-time All-Star winger Marian Hossa, who defected to the newly crowned champions in Detroit after half a season in Pittsburgh, believing the Red Wings offered his best chance to finally win the Stanley Cup. His move compounded an already healthy rivalry between the 11-time Stanley Cup champions and the upstarts from the Steel City.
A team built around the twin jewels of first-round draft picks Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins added experienced players throughout the season, as four of the five midseason pickups were at least 30 years of age. With seasoned players surrounding them, the 21-year-old Crosby and 22-year-old Malkin finished the regular season ranked third and first, respectively, in points in the NHL.
One of the key additions was right winger Billy Guerin, an 18-year veteran acquired from the New York Islanders at the trade deadline.
Guerin’s presence, not only as a capable right winger but as a veteran player, was “huge,” center Max Talbot said. His impact on Crosby, in particular, was well-documented, as was his ability to relax the locker room. Many players looked up to Guerin, Gill said, including Gill himself.
Guerin, for his part, credited the makeup of the team.
“We had a lot of older players who had been there before, guys that really took things in stride and enjoyed the game and could laugh, and we had some young superstars,” said Guerin, now the assistant general manager of the Penguins. “It was a good mix. Our young superstars … were allowed to act young because we could kind of let them do their thing. They just had to focus on themselves and their game and we could handle everything else. As much as we did in the locker room, those young guys were the backbone of our team.”
The mid-season coaching switch, which took place less than three weeks before Guerin arrived, also helped the locker room atmosphere.
“I think Therrien was a hardnose, do-it-my-way, very strict and rigid guy. He demanded a lot, and as a team, I think we were struggling to find passion in the game,” Gill explained. “When Bylsma came, we had a renewed excitement for the game.”
This ability to stay positive served the team well, as the Penguins found themselves facing an uphill battle in their pursuit of a second consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup. In the playoffs, nothing came easy: The team trailed 3-0 against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of the first round and was forced into a Game 7 against the Washington Capitals in the second round.
But each time, the team managed to rally, whether it was scoring five consecutive goals in the decisive game against the Flyers or clobbering the Capitals 6-2 in Washington. Crosby scored twice in both games.
Nowhere was this ability to rebound more evident than in the Stanley Cup final. After sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes, mostly due to the stupendous play of 24-year-old netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins rolled into Detroit ready to exact revenge. They promptly dropped the first two games of the series, losing 3-1 each time.
After winning the next two games, 4-2 each time, the Penguins found themselves once again on unfriendly ice. With little room for error, Pittsburgh skated into the Motor City and proceeded to collapse. Detroit goalie Chris Osgood shut out the Penguins, making 22 saves, while Fleury let in five goals before Bylsma pulled him.
Back in Pittsburgh and trailing 3-2 in the series, it was business as usual for the team.
“You can’t try to do things different because you lost one game,” Guerin said. “We’d gotten that far by playing a game a certain way. We just had to do it better. They had a good game, we had a bad game, and we moved on.”
“But looking back on it, it still amazes me because Detroit was so good,” he added. “To beat them four out of the last five games is pretty incredible.”
After forcing a Game 7 with a win at home, the Penguins flew to Detroit one last time.
What happened there will forever be part of Penguins lore. Talbot, who had scored 12 goals in the regular season, netted his team’s two goals in the 2-1 victory. Fleury made a Stanley Cup-winning save in the waning seconds. Crosby hoisted the Cup above his head for the first time. And Hossa watched the opposing team dogpile on the ice — again.
“I remember not really reacting to that [first] goal,” Talbot said. “That goal is worth nothing if we don’t get another one. As much as it felt good when it went in, I had to move past it. ... But when that second one happened, I let myself have a little celebration. After that, it was the same -— just focus and play. We still had a lot of hockey left, and we were against the Wings.”
“I remember going up to Fleury, though, after they scored their first goal to make it 2-1,” he added. “I went to say ‘Flower, don’t mess it up, I have the winning goal.’”
Fleury did not, and in handing the Red Wings their second loss at home in the playoffs, the Penguins became the third team to win the Cup in a Game 7 on the road.
And so, one year and eight days after a devastating loss to Detroit, the Penguins dished out payback, and the oddball group of young stars and veterans made the Penguins champions again.
“What a great feeling, to go from the bottom to the top,” Gill said. “It was a great ride.”
Web Design Zack Tanner