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Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin celebrates his third goal on the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period on Thursday night. (SHAUN BEST/Reuters)
Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin celebrates his third goal on the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period on Thursday night. (SHAUN BEST/Reuters)

Weekly notebook

Penguins a different team Add to ...

Publicly, no one on the Pittsburgh Penguins' side will ever say their series with the Carolina Hurricanes is over, even if it stands 2-0 in their favour.

As a burgeoning Stanley Cup contender, they are experienced enough to know that much. It does nothing to advance the cause to presume too much; or take any opponent for granted; and certainly not Carolina, which has already eliminated a No. 1 and a No. 3 seed from the 2009 playoffs.

Still, when the inevitable does occur, and the Penguins do eventually advance to the Stanley Cup final for a rematch with the Detroit Red Wings, the critical question will become: Did they learn enough from last year's six-game loss to turn the tables on the defending champions?

On some levels, the historical precedent may be to the mid-1980s, when the New York Islanders were winning championships on a consistent basis, but a young Edmonton Oilers' team loomed as a potential threat, with the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr in the line-up.

The Penguins are the closest thing on offer in today's NHL to the Oilers of that era, something coach Dan Bylsma (who played with Gretzky briefly in Los Angeles) knows only too well. In reference to Evgeni Malkin's extraordinary highlight-reel goal that sealed the victory over Carolina on Thursday, Bylsma noted: "There are not many players in the world that can make a play like that - and two of them are on our team."

The second, of course, is Sidney Crosby, who is in the midst of an exceptional breakout playoff season himself.

The first time the Oilers went to the Stanley Cup final against the Islanders - in 1983 - they were schooled by the more experienced team and learned something from that encounter; that the playoffs are all about laying it on the line, every shift, every game, every play. The next time the two teams met, in the spring of 1984, the Oilers reversed the result, winning the first of what would be five championships in a seven-year span, because that lesson sunk in.

Last year, a similar scenario unfolded in the Red Wings-Penguins' series. Pittsburgh pushed Detroit to six games - and kept its playoff hopes alive with a dramatic multiple overtime win in facing elimination in Game 5 - but ultimately fell short.

The Red Wings' apparent edge was so great to one of the key Penguins' players, right winger Marian Hossa, that he elected to sign with Detroit in the off-season, on the grounds that playing for the Red Wings gave him his best chance of sipping from the Stanley Cup.

Soon, we'll see if Hossa's assessement proves to be true. Undoubtedly, his presence in the Red Wings' line-up will be one of the major talking points in the run-up to a prospective Detroit-Pittsburgh final.

The Penguins are a different team year-over-year on some important levels. There is Hossa and no tangible contributions from Petr Sykora either. Sykora was a top-six forward for last year's finalists, but has been parked in the press box for most of these playoffs. On the plus side, the Penguins also have another valuable year of playoff experience under their collective belts, which seems to be more important for Malkin's development than it is for Crosby, given that the latter was exceptional last year as well.

When Edmonton won its first championship, Messier received the team's first-ever Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. His emergence, to supplement Gretzky's contributions, ultimately pushed the Oilers over the top.

It is not so much of a reach to suggest that if Malkin can continue to perform at the level that he's playing at since about halfway through their second-round series against the Washington Capitals, his contributions would greatly enhance Pittsburgh's chances of dethroning the oh-so-efficient and deep Red Wings.

He is, in effect, the wild card in the equation.

Malkin wasn't much of a factor in the Red Wings' series last year, negated partly by Detroit's defensively efficient centre-ice corps. His struggles were explained away, partly because of sickness (he reportedly contracted the flu just before the final and wasn't right for a week) - and he never got his rhythm after that.

Getting Malkin's view on his own progress and evolution is difficult, because of the language barrier. However, Crosby - who is used to answering questions on his behalf - addressed the matter in an open way, following Malkin's three-goal game the other night.

Asked specifically about the criticism directed towards Malkin's ordinary final last season, Crosby - who is no stranger to hard scrutiny himself, suggested that it's just the nature of the playoff beast.

"You expect that everything is dissected so much game by game," said Crosby. "That's just the way it is.

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