The Penguins' Sidney Crosby (right) and Evgeni Malkin talk during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Capitals on Tuesday, May 10, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.
As the champagne sprayed and the Stanley Cup was passed around on that legendary June night at Joe Louis Arena in 2009, the Penguins knew they had just completed a spectacularly difficult task.
They survived an epic seven-game battle of superstars with the Washington Capitals. They dethroned a respected Detroit Red Wings team in seven more games in the final. They played through the potentially debilitating injuries and draining fatigue that all teams must overcome to win 16 games in a single postseason.
It was hard, they learned painfully that spring, to get to the top.
It was even harder, they learned even more painfully over the next six springs, to stay there.
Now, as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury — the five players from the 2009 title team that remain on the roster — prepare to lead the Penguins into the Stanley Cup Final again seven years later, they have a chance to show the hockey world exactly what they've learned.
“We did a great job of becoming a certain style of team,” Kunitz said. “We grew as a group. We had our struggles. When you go through struggles and can come out better on the back end, we've been playing some of our best hockey because of what we went through.”
Kunitz was referring to the struggles the Penguins have endured this season, getting off to a dismal start before a coaching change and key personnel additions turned their fortunes around. But he might as well have been talking about the career arcs of the five championship holdovers.
They've sustained an unfathomable rash of injuries — concussions, torn ligaments, even a stroke for Letang — since 2009.
They've suffered a series of playoff failures — an upset by Jaroslav Halak and a marginally talented Canadiens team in 2010, a first-round meltdown against the rival Flyers in '12, a sweep at the hands of the Bruins in '13, an epic collapse to the Rangers in '14 — over the past six seasons.
They've heard the barbs of critics who claim one championship is a disappointment for a core with so much talent.
If they're really ready to come out better on the back end, they'll relegate those struggles to historical footnotes.
If they've really learned the painful lessons of the past six springs, their legacies will be unassailable.
All it takes is four more wins.
But they're the hardest wins of them all.
“We have a chance,” Letang said, “to do something great and to be remembered.”
Then: Already an MVP and scoring champion, Crosby had vanquished the Penguins' historical rival (Flyers) and his (Alex Ovechkin) while leading a return to the Stanley Cup Final. He finished the playoffs with a leading 15 goals, and his 31 points were second only to Evgeni Malkin's top total. Crosby became the youngest Cup-winning captain in NHL history when the Penguins upset the Detroit Red Wings.
Now: Missing more than a year with concussion symptoms and taking the brunt of the criticism for the team's playoff failures, there have been tough times for Crosby since 2009. This season, however, has been a redemption story. Crosby shook off the longest scoring slump of his career to cement his status as the league's best player. He had three game-winning goals in the conference finals.
Then: Haunted by a Game 6 home loss in the previous final, Fleury started the playoffs by stopping 83 of 86 shots to steal Games 2 and 4 in the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers. Ultimately third in playoff MVP voting, Fleury's last-second save on Nicklas Lidstrom preserved a 2-1 victory in Game 7 of the final. He surrendered only 33 goals in the Penguins' 16 playoff wins.
Now: While all five championship holdovers have sometimes struggled since 2009, Fleury's hard times are now. After suffering a concussion March 31, Fleury temporarily lost his starting spot to rookie Matt Murray. After a 21-save performance in a 4-3 overtime loss in his return to the lineup in Game 5 of the conference finals, it seems clear Fleury won't get his net back until next fall.
Then: Kunitz brought championship experience along with speed and physicality when he was acquired by general manager Ray Shero during the regular season. He clicked immediately upon being paired with Sidney Crosby, becoming the captain's regular left winger on a top line that also included veteran right winger Bill Guerin. He scored just once, but Kunitz had 13 assists and 80 hits during the playoff run.
Now: After his career peaked with a 35-goal season and Olympic roster spot in 2014, Kunitz has settled into a role that will carry him through the twilight of his career. He remains the most physical forechecker on the roster and seems to have found chemistry on a line with center Evgeni Malkin and right wing Bryan Rust. He has three goals and three assists in his last five games.
Then: By his second postseason, Letang had entrenched himself on the Penguins' second pairing. Only Sergei Gonchar and Nicklas Lidstrom scored more than Letang's 13 points among defensemen, and his overtime goal in Game 3 provided the Penguins a needed first win in Round 2 against the Washington Capitals. During the Stanley Cup Final, Letang was deployed against former teammate Marian Hossa. The matchup — and series — went to the Penguins.
Now: His temper occasionally still gets the better of him, and he had a forgettable minus-4 night in Game 5 of the conference finals. But for the most part, Letang has become one of the most brilliant and indispensible minutes-munching defensemen in the league. The Penguins have become a well-oiled puck-moving possession machine in large part due to Letang's efforts on the breakout.
Then: Three years into his career, Malkin established himself as arguably hockey's dominant offensive force. He followed a first scoring title with 36 postseason points — still the most by in a single playoff run by any player since Wayne Gretzky in 1993. The playoff MVP, Malkin was the only Penguin to score multiple goals in every series, including six in the Eastern Conference finals sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Now: Dealing with an elbow injury that kept him out the last month of the regular season, Malkin hasn't been as consistently dangerous as he was in 2009, but that's probably an impossibly high standard to reach again. Malkin had two goals and five assists in four games against the New York Rangers in the first round and made the scoresheet in the last five games of the conference finals.