No guarantees for champion Penguins

Published 10:17 pm Sunday, June 14, 2009

(AP) — Oh, those kids.

Jordan Staal is 20, Sidney Crosby is 21, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin are 22, Marc-Andre Fleury is 24. In another sport, they’d be called prospects. In the NHL, they’re called champions.

“In a very short time period early in their career, they got a Cup,” Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

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Now, how many more times can the Penguins win the Stanley Cup they lifted ahead of schedule by beating Detroit 2-1 in Game 7 on Friday? How many more titles can this team with the kid captain and its roster of 20-somethings pull off?

The Penguins won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1992 by beating the NHL’s most experienced and accomplished collection of winners, the Red Wings, so it’s only natural for them to assume they’ll win more in a hurry.

Crosby and Malkin, hockey’s most talented duo, might not peak for years. Each is signed to a long-term contract. A new arena and the increased revenue from it arrive next year. The victory parade, one that comes only 4 1/2 months after the Steelers’ Super Bowl celebration, takes place Monday.

If the Red Wings were the NHL’s showcase franchise the past dozen seasons, the Penguins look to be next in line after becoming the first road team in 38 years to win a Stanley Cup finals Game 7.

A cautionary tale from 1993 offers the warning that it won’t be easy.

Then, the Mario Lemieux- and Jaromir Jagr-led Penguins were coming off consecutive Stanley Cups. They were better still in 1993, winning the franchise’s only Presidents’ Trophy and reeling off a league-record 17-game winning streak.

Possibly the best team in Penguins history appeared ready to walk through the playoffs, only to be ousted in a second-round Game 7 by an undistinguished Islanders team that had little in common with the Penguins except that both wore skates.

Lemieux was only 27, Jagr was 21, yet the Penguins never made it back to the Stanley Cup finals with that lineup. Lemieux experienced years’ worth of health issues that included back misery and cancer, and ownership went through serious financial problems that ultimately led to bankruptcy.

Lemieux picked up the pieces in 1999 by buying the team, but he realizes that future titles aren’t guaranteed just because these Crosby-vintage Penguins reached the finals the past two years. The Penguins lost to Detroit in six games last year before eliminating the Red Wings in one of the NHL’s best finals in a quarter-century.

“The type of talent we have gives us the chance to do something special,” Lemieux said.

A chance, for sure. A certainty? Losing coach Mike Babcock of Detroit warns the salary cap poses problems for any team hoping to string together multiple titles.

“What happens is there’s only so much pie to go around,” Babcock said. “Doesn’t Malkin go from $3.5 (million) to $8.7 (million in 2009-10)? There goes two more players. It’s called math. So depth is really important as much as star power is.”

Do the math? The Penguins are glad they didn’t do that after trailing Detroit 2-0 and 3-2 during a finals in which Pittsburgh’s only lead of the series came after Game 7. The Penguins labored through an agonizing third period dominated by Detroit to accomplish their fourth victory in the final five games, hardly the fluke that some unhappy Red Wings fans exiting Joe Louis Arena made it out to be.

Some fans cheered when Crosby injured a knee during a mid-ice collision with Johan Franzen in the second period, then booed when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman handed the Stanley Cup to Crosby. The fans’ disappointment with the Red Wings’ loss illustrates how high the expectations to win can be, especially when only a Stanley Cup is acceptable.

The Penguins will experience that in September when, after having only four full months without hockey during a two-year period (July and August of 2008 and 2009), they will set out again to attempt the 8 1/2-month journey that is required to win the Cup.

By winning this Stanley Cup, the Penguins raised the bar for, oh, their next 10 or so teams to come. Bylsma will experience the same thing.

Only 10 months ago, he got his first AHL head coaching job at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He ended the season by lifting the Stanley Cup, only the second rookie head coach to win it after taking over a team during the season.

“They just don’t hand you a trip to the Stanley Cup finals again the second year,” Bylsma said. “So we’re going to enjoy this one. We’re going to sit back and relish the moment. We’re going to get our names put on the Cup and we’ll all get our day with that. In short order, come September, we’ll get ready to start building the foundation again for what this team could possibly do.”