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Starkey: Pens better this year

| Sunday, May 24, 2009

RALEIGH, N.C. — They're baaaaack.

Well, almost.

The Penguins pulled to within one victory of an improbable return to the Stanley Cup final when they whipped the Carolina Hurricanes, 6-2, Saturday night at the RBC Center.

Improbable might be too weak a word.

This team has survived long-term injuries to key players, lengthy slumps, a season-opening trip overseas, a coaching change and some serious playoff adversity to put itself in this position — and all of that was wrapped under the heading Runner-up Curse .

See, teams that reach the Stanley Cup final and lose are much more likely to fold the following spring than to return.

Going into this season, the past 11 Cup runners-up had combined to win one measly playoff series.


The Penguins have won two and can make it three with a win Tuesday night in Game 4.

At this point, there is every reason to believe it will happen -- and won't it be fitting that former Steelers coach and current Raleigh resident Bill Cowher, who didn't have much luck winning conference championships at home, is scheduled to sound the Hurricanes' "warning siren" before Game 4?

Whether it ends that night or shortly thereafter, the Penguins have made one thing abundantly clear as this playoff run has progressed — they are better than they were last season, for many reasons:

• Their talented young players are a year older and a year wiser.

• Sidney Crosby finally is healthy for a playoff run, as compared to last season, when he was coming off a high-ankle sprain, or the year before, when he played on a broken foot.

• Evgeni Malkin is a completely different human being than he was at this time last year, though we're not sure "human" is an adequate description, given his other-worldly play.

• The third and fourth lines have upgraded.

• The top line is more balanced.

• Defenseman Mark Eaton is healthy and playing at the top of his game.

Finally, and perhaps as important as anything else, new coach Dan Bylsma's up-tempo style better suits the talent on hand.

"The system we're playing is slightly different, which might give this team an advantage (over last year's)," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "With the personnel we have, our system fits well."

Veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar agreed, saying, "We're more aggressive, creating more chances."

Gonchar made another good point, speaking of the adversity this team has faced. Maybe all of it needed to happen in order to survive the curse.

There's nothing like major short-term problems to create a sense of focus.

"We couldn't think far ahead," Gonchar said. "We knew we had to get as many points as we could just to make the playoffs."

Once there, the Penguins got better every round. Suddenly, they have played about 11 good games in a row.

A breathtaking display of skill buried the Hurricanes in the first period last night, after Carolina had taken a 1-0 lead at 4:06.

The usual culprits — Malkin and Crosby — were heavily involved. A half-minute into a power play, shortly after Carolina's goal, Malkin blocked Tim Gleason's clearing attempt and skated in alone on besieged goaltender Cam Ward.


Tie game.

As the period wound under a minute, Crosby finished off as pretty a three-way passing play as you'll ever see to put the Penguins ahead. The top line combined to create the goal, every player making a play on his backhand.

Then along came Malkin again, bulling his way down the right-wing boards, picking up a loose puck and stuffing it between Ward's pads for his 12th goal and NHL-leading 27th point of the playoffs.

Oh yeah, it also was Malkin's sixth goal of the series.

Things got a bit hairy in the third, but the Penguins pushed their lead to 4-2 when Malkin — who else• — made a between-the-skates drop pass to Ruslan Fedotenko, who beat Ward with 8:31 left.

The key there, Malkin said, was that Fedotenko yelled to him in Russian.

What did he say?

" 'Free, free!" Malkin said, laughing.

It's hard not to think ahead now, to a possible rematch between the Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings — the Hossa Bowl, anyone• — but there is work to be done on both sides.

The Red Wings find themselves in a dogfight with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Penguins, amazingly, find themselves one win away from a return trip to the final — and poised to bring a better team.

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