- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

RALEIGH, N.C. | Now it is up to the Detroit Red Wings to set up the first rematch in the Stanley Cup Finals in 25 years.

The Pittsburgh Penguins fulfilled their half of the requirement Tuesday night by dismissing the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1 at sold-out RBC Center, completing a four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference finals and earning a second straight trip to the championship round.

“We feel like this group in this dressing room still has a lot to prove yet,” said Penguins forward Matt Cooke, who signed with Pittsburgh after finishing last season with the Washington Capitals. “Yeah, we’re back in the Stanley Cup Finals, but we’re not done. We have a lot to accomplish yet.”

Detroit has three chances against the Chicago Blackhawks to return to the finals, the first coming Wednesday night at Joe Louis Arena. It would be the first rematch since the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Islanders clashed in 1983 and 1984 and only the fourth since the league expanded from the “Original Six” teams in 1967.

The victory completed an improbable turnaround for the Penguins, who were languishing in 10th place in the Eastern Conference when Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien as coach Feb. 15. The Penguins are the first franchise to make back-to-back trips to the Cup finals with different coaches since Pittsburgh did so in 1991 with Bob Johnson and in 1992 with Scotty Bowman.

“We knew we were a better team than we were showing through December and January, and everyone was at a loss,” Cooke said. “With the coaching change, we instantly got confidence and started playing the right way.”

Pittsburgh controlled the first three games in this series on the strength of dominant performances by Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, but the Penguins proved to be better on a night when the two superstars didn’t record a shot in the first 52 minutes of the contest.

Crosby finished with two assists to give him 28 points in this postseason, which ties Malkin for the most and is 10 more than any other remaining player.

“It is one thing to talk about experience, but is it hard to learn,” Crosby said. “Hopefully we got our lesson last year [by losing in the finals to the Red Wings in six games] and we can move forward here.”

Marc-Andre Fleury, who has endured plenty of criticism in his young career, yielded a goal on Carolina’s first shot of the game but was stellar thereafter. He finished with 30 saves and has backstopped his team to a pair of Cup finals appearances before his 25th birthday.

Eric Staal put the Hurricanes in front just 96 seconds into the contest. After two failed attempts to clear the puck along the wall by the Penguins, Staal sneaked a stuff attempt inside the post to the left of Fleury.

It was Staal’s team-leading 10th goal of the postseason but his first of the series. He scored nine goals in the first two rounds to become a contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, but he failed to make an impact this round in the same fashion.

Ruslan Fedotenko knotted the score at 1-1 with a redirection at 8:21. Defenseman Philippe Boucher ripped a shot from the right point that Carolina defenseman Tim Gleason lifted his foot to avoid because it was heading wide of the net, but Fedotenko was there at the left post to steer the puck into the cage.

Max Talbot was the benefactor of a fluky goal late in the first period. After Miroslav Satan was able to knock the puck away from Niclas Wallin near the Penguins’ blue line, Talbot raced toward the other end with the puck. His shot hit the shaft of Anton Babchuk’s stick and fluttered through the air, dropping just beyond the reach of Ward and into the goal.

Crosby and Bill Guerin teamed up to give the Penguins a two-goal advantage with the only marker of the middle period. Guerin chipped the puck to Crosby, who carried it into the offensive zone. Crosby waited for Guerin to drive the net and slipped him a perfect pass to one-time past Ward.

Guerin has proved to be possibly the top acquisition at this year’s trade deadline. Acquired from the New York Islanders for a conditional draft pick (which turned out to be a third-rounder), the 38-year-old has seven goals and 14 points in the postseason.

After the contest Crosby surprisingly grabbed the Wales Trophy, which is awarded to the Eastern Conference champion, and skated it over to his teammates. It is typically tradition in the NHL for players not to touch the conference championship trophies.

“We didn’t touch it last year, and things didn’t go the way we wanted them to,” Crosby said. “I just decided to switch it up.”

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