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Penguins earn another shot at Lord Stanley

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

RALEIGH, N.C. — Stunned?

"No, I wouldn't say so," Penguins winger Craig Adams said Tuesday night after his empty-net goal flipped the electrocution switch on his former team, the Carolina Hurricanes, in the Eastern Conference final.

"I've been in that situation. You go to the Stanley Cup final ... and the next year you struggle because you forget what it takes to win."

They've remembered.

With their 30th win in 42 games under coach Dan Bylsma, the Penguins are again bound for the Stanley Cup final. They wrapped a convincing four-game sweep of the Hurricanes with a 4-1 victory at RBC Center.

Not lost in the details of this win — goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's 30 saves and wingers Ruslan Fedotenko, Max Talbot, Bill Guerin and Adams answering an opening goal by Carolina center Eric Staal — was what it means.

"We have another opportunity," Penguins center and captain Sidney Crosby said of the chance to return the Cup to Pittsburgh for a third time.

By winning for the eighth time in nine games to claim this best-of-seven series, 4-0, the Penguins became the first NHL team since the 1984 Edmonton Oilers to reach the Cup final after losing in it the previous season.

If the defending champion Detroit Red Wings beat the Chicago Blackhawks at home tonight to end their Western Conference final series, a Cup final rematch — the likelihood of which Penguins center Jordan Staal admitted last night seemed bleak just three months ago — will likely open this weekend with Games 1 and 2 at Joe Louis Arena.

Few Penguins players would admit to craving another shot at the Red Wings, who raised the Cup on Mellon Arena ice last season.

However, as center Max Talbot said last night from a dressing room full with satisfied — though hardly content — teammates, "We're back, and we'll be ready for whoever we play."

Hurricanes winger Scott Walker sensed determination from the Penguins in a series in which they outscored Carolina, 20-9.

"You can tell they were there last year and they want a chance to do it again," he said. "I wouldn't really want to be facing them if I'm one of the other two teams. They're playing at a real high level right now. I think that year experience has definitely given them a lot of confidence."

Besting the modern-day dynastic Red Wings — four Cup titles since 1997 — or the burgeoning-power Blackhawks may prove no greater challenge to these Penguins than did qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Fleury described his club's regular season as having "some ups and downs."

At one point, retirement savings appeared more stable than the Penguins' playoff chances.

They were 10th in the East, five points from the final playoff spot, when first-year coach Bylsma — coaching in the American Hockey League when the season began — replaced Michel Therrien on Feb. 15.

Bylsma, then on an interim basis, instituted an up-tempo style to make better use of skill possessed by Crosby; would-be league scoring champion Evgeni Malkin; and the likes of puck-moving defensemen Sergei Gonchar, who had recently returned from a 56-game absence because of a left-shoulder injury; and Kris Letang.

He also steered the Penguins on an improbable 18-3-4 march that gained them home-ice advantage in the first playoff round, and a No. 4 seed that afforded them the same advantage in this series against sixth-seed Carolina.

A couple of acquisitions by general manager Ray Shero on March 4 — veteran wingers Guerin and Adams, who have combined for 10 playoff goals — and the Penguins, Staal said, "felt like a different team."

Or, as Talbot put it, "like ourselves again."

They opened the playoffs with a tough six-game victory against Philadelphia and outlasted reigning league MVP Alex Ovechkin's Washington club in seven second-round games.

The Hurricanes boasted many players from a team that won the Cup in 2006, including goalie Cam Ward, who was undefeated in six playoff series.

But they never really had a chance.

"We've got a pretty special group of guys here," Guerin said.

That group senses a special opportunity to makes itself immortal in this sport's history.

"We feel like this group in this dressing room still has a lot to prove yet," winger Matt Cooke said. "Yeah, we're back in the Stanley Cup final, but we're not done.

"We have a lot to accomplish yet."

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