The 2008 Pittsburgh Penguins were a franchise trending back upward after a long stretch in the wilderness. They’d made the playoffs in 2007 ending a four-season drought that stretched over five years, thanks to the cancelled season of 2005. Even though Pittsburgh lost in the first round in 2007, the arrival of Sidney Crosby and his MVP award that year had put hockey back on the map in the Steel City.
Crosby was named team captain at the tender age of 19, the youngest in league history. He was joined by center Evgeni Malkin, a talented 21-year-old. At this writing in July 2013, Crosby and Malkin are arguably the top two hockey players in the world. Marian Hossa was a forward who knew how to light the lamp and has had a distinguished career himself. Not a bad foundation to build a team, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was having a good year himself.
Pittsburgh didn’t get off to a blazing start, and they were .500 in December of 2007. But a four-game win streak, followed by an eight-game string moved them to 25-16 by January 10. Sustained consistency for the rest of the season led them to a 47-27-8 record, the Atlantic Division title and the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Ottawa was the first-round opponent, and the Senators had the firepower to match up with Pittsburgh. Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley were all excellent scorers and Ottawa had the second-best offense in the NHL. What they couldn’t do was defend, and that would be fatal in this series.
In the first two games in Pittsburgh, Malkin had five assists while Crosby had four, as the two stars fed Gary Roberts and Ryan Malone for goals in easy wins of 4-0 and 5-3. Hossa had an early assist in Game 3 and a power play goal that locked up a 4-1 win. In the finale, Fleury took over, had his team up 2-1 late, when Crosby scored an empty net goal to beat Ottawa’s last desperate rush. Pittsburgh was moving on to the second round.
The NHL playoffs are known for upsets, and the #3 seed Washington Capitals were ousted by the Philadelphia Flyers, while the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens barely survived a seven-game series. The Penguins had to feel good about their chances on April 25, as they took the ice against the New York Rangers to begin the second round.
New York was the mirror image of Ottawa. The Rangers were defense-first, with 25-year-old goalie Henrik Lundqvist leading up a top-five unit. They couldn’t score though, as Jaromir Jagr, who’d had his finest days skating alongside Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, was 35-years-old, fading and still the top scorer for the Rangers.
Pittsburgh took a period to find their skating legs as the Rangers burst to a 3-0 lead in Game 1. The Pens rallied to tie it 4-4, when Crosby fed Malkin for a power play goal that sealed a 5-4 win. It was all defense in Game 2, as Fleury led 1-0, when an empty net goal in the final minute gave Pittsburgh both a 2-0 win and a 2-0 series lead.
The teams were in Madison Square Garden for Game 3, and Pittsburgh led a 3-1 lead slip and the Rangers tied it late in the second period. The defense was not protecting Fleury, who faced 39 shots. But once again in a tie game, it was Crosby to Malkin on the power play and Pittsburgh won its seventh straight game to open the playoffs.
New York ended the win streak with a 3-0 win in Game 4, but back in front of the home crowd, Marian Hossa scored a goal in the first period, and when the game went to overtime at 2-2, Hossa scored one more time to send his team to the conference finals.
Just as Washington lost prior to the second round, Montreal fell before the conference finals. Pittsburgh was the only favorite still standing and they had home ice against Philadelphia. The Flyers were an offense-heavy team. There wasn’t one clear scorer, though centers Danny Briere and Mike Richards were the best two players. If this series was going to come down to a battle of centers, I think most fans, even with just 2008 knowledge, would have taken Crosby and Malkin.
Malkin scored two goals in a Game 1 that opened up with both teams on fire, as Pittsburgh led 3-2 at the first intermission, before things settled down and the Pens won 4-2. Game 2 was tied 2-2 after two periods before a Pittsburgh goal with 11 minutes left gave them a lead they would not lose. Back in Philadelphia, it was Hossa scoring twice in a 4-1 win that put the Pens a win from the Stanley Cup Finals.
Philadelphia goalie Martin Biron was far from the league’s elite, but he was at a disadvantage in this series. Pittsburgh was peppering him with shot volume in the high 30s game after game. Biron came up clutch in Game 4 with 36 saves, and Philly’s 4-2 win sent the series back west. But all that did was give the home fans the chance to celebrate. Biron finally cracked in Game 5, as Pittsburgh ripped him for a 6-0 win.
For the first time since Lemieux and the back-to-back Stanley Cup runs of 1991-92, the Penguins would play for hockey’s biggest prize.
If Pittsburgh got away with beating the 5/6/7 seeds in the Eastern Conference, there would be no such luck in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals. The Detroit Red Wings had the best record in hockey and validated it with a run through the Western Conference. They had a top three offense, and the league’s best defense. Chris Osgood was one of the game’s best goalies, while Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg led an offense known for its exceptional passing skills.
Detroit completely outskated Pittsburgh in the first two games, outshooting them 68-41, while Osgood was untouchable. With wins of 4-0 and 3-0, the Red Wings looked unstoppable. Crosby answered by scoring Game 3’s first two goals and leading a 3-2 win that made it a series.
Game 4 was a tough defensive battle, but once again Detroit got their shots, while Pittsburgh got just 22 cracks at Osgood. The Red Wings broke a 1-1 tie early in the third period and with their 2-1 win were ready to head home and hoist a Cup.
Detroit was ready to do just that, leading 3-2 with 35 seconds left. Then the improbable happened. Pittsburgh’s Maxime Talbot scored amidst the frenzy of the last desperate push with the goalie pulled. The game went into the third overtime and the Penguins won 4-3. The Finals would return to Pittsburgh for Game 6. Could a magical comeback be in the works?
Pittsburgh still had the problem of not being able to generate shots. Even with three overtimes in Game 5 they only took 32 and they never did solve the Detroit defense. 22 shots against Osgood like they had in Game 6 weren’t going to cut it. Detroit led 3-1, when a power play goal by Hossa with 1:27 left gave the crowd hope of more magic. This time it wasn’t to be, and the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.
Still, if there was any doubt that hockey was back in Pittsburgh, the 2008 Pittsburgh Penguins removed it. They’d established themselves as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference and whetted their city’s appetite for a championship. And it only took one year to quelch that appetite. The 2009 Stanley Cup Finals saw a Pittsburgh-Detroit rematch, and this time it was the Penguins who ended up on top.