(Editor's note: Last in a four-part series.)
Not that we're here to wave the NHL banner, but the best thing that could happen for the league is to have the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup.
Gary Bettman can boast about increased attendance and how swell the salary cap is working, but the commissioner knows what kind of added exposure and growth potential exists for his game if this band of extremely talented and extremely exciting players finish on top.
Sidney Crosby was anointed the league's savior coming out of the 2004-05 season lost to a labor dispute despite having no say in the matter, and fans had a right to ask, "What gives?" Well, that's at least until now, because the 20-year-old third-year standout is quickly fulfilling those immense expectations.
But as we are also finding out, this team is more than just Crosby, much more, and here are five reasons the Penguins can skate the Cup on or before June 9.
1. World-class skill. Mario Lemieux, Sid the Kid, Jaromir Jagr, Evgeni Malkin. It's deja vu. Rich in hockey tradition, the new era of Penguins hockey is in full swing, and it's no slick PR campaign. These guys are the real deal.
How can you not feel good for Lemieux, who patiently worked with the franchise and the city to get a new arena deal done while playing landlord to the game's next big thing? And what an advantage for Crosby, to basically have a walking, talking, breathing encyclopedia on how to handle all things hockey – on and off the ice – literally under the same roof.
Crosby and the 21-year-old Malkin are just two pieces of this skilled puzzle. Goal-scorer Marian Hossa has five of them in this playoff season and is the team's third-leading scorer with 10 points (the aforementioned Crosby and Malkin have 14 points apiece).
Top defenseman Sergei Gonchar hasn't received the credit he's due this season. Forwards Petr Sykora, Ryan Malone, Jordan Staal and Kris Letang, an offensive defenseman who will continue to bloom with experience, belong in this category as well.
2. World-class confidence This group had a good feeling about itself early on, but things really got cemented with how well the team picked up and performed when Crosby missed a total of 29 games during the second half of the regular season.
A high-ankle sprain forced Crosby out for the first extended portion of missed games during his young career, and the result was the Penguins met adversity and are better for it today.
Pittsburgh posted almost identical results in terms of winning as it earned 36 points without Crosby (average of 1.24 per game) and the Penguins earned 66 with him (1.25 per contest).
The biggest breakthrough was Malkin's emergence from Crosby's shadow. A cross between Joe Thornton with his size and ability to pass and Ilya Kovalchuk with his sniper's touch, Malkin was far more productive with Crosby out of the lineup. That would seem to buck logic since without Crosby opponents should have been able to key on Malkin instead of having to split their attention.
Malkin scored 20 goals and 46 points during the 29 games Crosby missed for an average of 1.59 points per game. With Crosby in the lineup, Malkin was still productive – 27 goals and 60 points in 66 games – but that computes to 0.91 points per contest.
Obviously the Pens are more formidable with both young guns in the lineup, but the fact they were able to survive and watch Malkin mature before their very eyes was huge.
3. Roles are clearly defined. The back-to-back champs of 1991 and '92 serve as a good model for how the current Pittsburgh team is built.
Of the players who played both of those championship seasons, Ron Francis, Kevin Stevens, Jaromir Jagr, Joey Mullen, Bryan Trottier and Lemieux filled the skilled forward slots while Rick Tocchet, not there in '91 and certainly no stranger to scoring, was very comfortable with physical, role-playing grinding forwards that included Bob Errey, Phil Bourque, Shawn McEachern, Jiri Hrdina, Troy Loney and Jay Caufield.
Malkin, Crosby, Ryan Malone, Sykora, Pascal Dupuis and Hossa form Pittsburgh's well-defined top six with Staal centering an effective third line that includes the pesky Jarkko Ruutu and speedy Tyler Kennedy. Need energy? Call on fourth-liners Gary Roberts, Adam Hall and Georges Laraque to change momentum.
4. They've got dirt, too. It's not all flash and dash, and that's a good thing because no team skates a Cup without the players in the trenches. In fact, it's often the third- or fourth-line winger of fourth or fifth defenseman who can be the difference in a series.
For the Penguins, the veteran Roberts is just that kind of tough player to face in the playoffs. His work in Game 1 against Ottawa, scoring two goals and antagonizing the Senators to no end, went a long way in setting an early tone that led to a series sweep. Not that there's many fights this time of the year, but Laraque still commands respect and helps get others space.
Ruutu skates a fine line, but between his chirping and big Hal Gill's presence, Jagr wasn't able to carry the Rangers for more than one victory in the second-round match-up. Brooks Orpik is one of the league's lesser known big hitters on the blue line while Ryan Whitney is turning into a nice two-way threat on defense.
5. Best players are their best players At the end of the night, or the end of two-month marathon in this case, your best players really have to be your best players. And the Penguins are getting that for sure.
Crosby and Malkin have come up big against the defending East champs and a New York Rangers outfit that plays outstanding team defense.
And don't overlook the work of 23-year-old goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who like Crosby battled a high-ankle sprain during the regular season only to show no adverse effects in the playoffs. Fleury, another of Pittsburgh's prized No. 1 draft picks, leads in record (8-1), save percentage (.938), shutouts (2) and was third in goals-against average (1.76) after two rounds.