Starkey: All or nothing for Penguins
RALEIGH, N.C. — As his team paraded the Stanley Cup around Mellon Arena 357 days ago, veteran Detroit Red Wings forward Darren McCarty considered the vanquished Penguins.
"That's a young team," McCarty said. "We've been in that position, and they'll learn from it.
"They'll be back."
And so they are, having swept away the Carolina Hurricanes with a 4-1 victory Tuesday night at the RBC Center (RBC standing for Really Bogus, Cowher).
Barring a Chicago Blackhawks miracle, the Penguins again will meet the robust Red Wings — and that is precisely what any competitor would want.
Team captain Sidney Crosby stayed politically correct when asked if he'd like another crack at Detroit, saying, "It doesn't matter," but teammate Jordan Staal answered differently.
"Yeah," Staal said. "It would be a pretty sweet feeling to beat them, but (determining the opponent) is out of our control."
What an effort it took just to get this far, back to the point where the Penguins' climb ended last spring. They are the first team since the 1984 Edmonton Oilers to return to the Cup final a season after finishing as runner-up.
So commend the Penguins for a remarkable journey. They deserve credit. But rest assured, they also know the cold, hard truth:
If they do not finish the job, it all will have been for naught.
"When you go this far and don't get what you want, it's a bitter feeling," Staal said. "We felt that last year, and we don't want that to happen again. We're better prepared for that first game, for that drop of the puck."
Fifteen of the 20 players who suited up last night — plus head coach Dan Bylsma and assistant Tom Fitzgerald — have experienced the pain of playing in a Stanley Cup final and losing.
Ask Bylsma about how he narrowly missed a scoring chance, playing for Anaheim early in a scoreless Game 7 of the 2003 Cup final against New Jersey, and he will tell you the memory "haunts" him.
Right winger Miroslav Satan played for a Buffalo Sabres team that lost the Cup final to Dallas 10 years ago.
I asked Satan, before this season, how the experience affected him.
"It's like you go all the way there for nothing, if you can put it that way," he said. "It's definitely a success to get to the final, but if you don't win it, you feel probably worse than if you wouldn't even make the playoffs."
Harsh, but true.
The higher the stakes, the harder the possible fall. That is the risk of flirting with greatness.
They say nobody remembers who finishes second. That's not always true. If you make a habit of finishing second, you're liable to be remembered — and slapped with an unfair label.
It says here the Penguins will bring a better team to this year's final. The Red Wings might, too, depending on the health of defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and star forward Pavel Datsyuk, who was having a horrific playoff before leaving the lineup.
This is essentially the same Detroit team as last year, only bolstered by the additions of Marian Hossa and goal-scoring power forward Johan Franzen, who was a non-factor for much of last year's final because of a concussion.
Nevertheless, the Penguins will come flying in with the two hottest players in the world in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the latter of whom already has admitted he has unfinished business next round.
All of them do.
"This year, I think we just have more of a realistic feel to what we're doing," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "We were down, 2-0, before we knew it last year. I think we learned a lot from those first two games."
It will be a winnable series, for sure. The Penguins are better suited to play the Red Wings because of Bylsma's aggressive, up-tempo system, which is designed to generate a ton of shots.
Three-hundred-and-fifty-seven days after the fall, it's all there for the Penguins.
All, or nothing.