- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2008

PITTSBURGH — For some of the Pittsburgh Penguins like Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, success has been all they have known in their short NHL careers.

There are others like Ryan Malone, Brooks Orpik and Ryan Whitney who know this rise from conference doormats to conference champs in two seasons began before that. They also know all of the hockey-themed euphoria in this city — the 66 straight sellouts, the thousands of people watching playoff games outside Mellon Arena and the growing waiting list for season tickets — almost never happened.

“I remember the one summer myself and Ryan Malone calling each other a bunch of times and just saying from what the media was telling us, we were pretty sure we were going to Kansas City,” Orpik said. “We talked about getting our stuff [at the arena] and getting ready to move our stuff out of storage. Obviously with the support we have here, it is a good thing we stayed.”

Since the Penguins last won the Stanley Cup in 1992, their opponent in Game 1 of the finals tonight, the Detroit Red Wings, captured hockey’s greatest prize three times and have become the NHL’s model franchise.

The Penguins, one of the league’s original expansion teams in 1967, have been anything but. There was the embarrassment of bankruptcy. Twice it has appeared the club would leave town only to be saved in the final hour.

The momentum created by the return of the franchise’s greatest player (and owner) Mario Lemieux from retirement during the 2001-02 season faded away after three consecutive last-place finishes in the Atlantic Division and a work stoppage wiped out another year.

“A couple of us were talking about how we remember those down days,” Whitney said. “We remember those days when we kept saying we were going to be great and were going to be in the Stanley Cup Finals, and we were going to win Stanley Cups. It is nice to finally be there. Well, we’re not there yet, but we are close.”

Years of losing yielded high draft picks, and a stroke of luck in the summer of 2005 were central to the team’s rebuilding. Players like Whitney, Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury make up an enviable young group, but winning the draft lottery three summers ago for the right to select the kid hailed as the next Wayne Gretzky changed everything.

Adding Sidney Crosby and a bushel of veterans right after the lockout didn’t buy instant success for the Penguins, and 2005-06 ended with a fourth straight last-place finish.

“I never thought this [was possible], but at the same time I knew we were going in the right direction,” defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. “Even though we didn’t make the playoffs toward the end of the [2005-06] season we started playing better.”

The franchise switched coaches during that season and general managers after it. Malkin joined the team from Russia and won the Calder Trophy last season. Ray Shero selected Jordan Staal with the second pick in the 2006 draft as one of his first moves as general manager. Staal was a Calder finalist last year.

Still, the battle for financing a new arena to replace the outdated Igloo dragged on longer than expected. As the team began to turn the corner and make a run to the playoffs last year, the speculation about the team moving to Kansas City or Hamilton, Ont., continued.

BlackBerry mogul Jim Balsillie tried to buy the team but backed off. Lemieux’s ownership group reached a deal with Isle of Capri Casinos to fund an arena if it was awarded the city’s pending casino license, but it went to another company.

“That situation was so far out of control we would almost joke around about it,” Orpik said. “It was something we couldn’t be overly concerned with — especially us that were young. We didn’t have houses yet, so we’re used to moving around a lot. It was one of those things if we moved, we moved. [Malone] obviously has a lot stronger connection to the area than I do.”

Indeed Malone, whose father was a longtime scout for the team, grew up in the city with this team. Had the Penguins left town, he, more than any of the players, would have felt the impact.

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