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Top Shelf: Pens '08 vs. Pens '09, what's different?

Thanks in big part to Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins are set to make their second straight Stanley Cup final appearance. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Thanks in big part to Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins are set to make their second straight Stanley Cup final appearance. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

Years tend to blur. It’s one of the cruelest and truest aspects of adult life.

As such, the differences between the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins and the 2008 team that also won the Eastern Conference title – the first repeat winner since New Jersey in 2001 – might not immediately spring to mind.

One of the more glaring alterations is the fact the Pens are likely to be facing a guy they were lacing ’em up with last year. Marian Hossa had a much more productive spring with the Pens last season than he’s had as a Red Wing this year and was dynamite for Pittsburgh over the final four contests of its six-game loss to Detroit last June.

The Pens lost Games 1 and 2 of last year’s Cup showdown by a combined score of 7-0. Hossa then turned up the heat and scored three goals and seven points over the last four contests of the series. Sidney Crosby also came alive after Game 2, scoring two goals and six points to close things out.

The natural inclination is to believe Evgeni Malkin, who was pointless and invisible through four games of last year’s final, will step up and replace the production Hossa provided.

Good as Hossa was, Malkin in full flight poses more of a threat than the departed Penguin could ever muster. Two superstars playing full-steam-ahead hockey has to make Pittsburgh excited about its chances.

Another obvious difference between this year’s East representatives relative to last year is the man behind the bench. Since replacing Michel Therrien in mid-February, Dan Bylsma has had all the answers as Pens coach.

He’s turned the team loose on the attack, while making sure everybody knows where the defensive zone is and what to do while there.

The most poignant decision Bylsma has made is to go with an 11-forward, seven-defensemen arsenal. This alignment has allowed him to match winger Miroslav Satan with Crosby or Malkin at center, creating a very potent “fourth” line.

The two all-world pivots have the juice in their young legs to handle the extra ice time and both players seem to currently exist in that wonderful space where youthful exuberance is colored by enough experience to make something special happen.

Marc-Andre Fleury knows a thing or two about that zone. He earned his stripes last spring and they’re shining brighter by the round this year. The goalie made several key saves to help Pittsburgh put away Game 4 against Carolina and has shown the all-important understanding that it’s not always how many you make, but when you make them.

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While it would be a bad sign for the Pens if Fleury had to turn into a full-time thief, he’s completely capable of stealing a game or two in the final series if the need arises.

The support staff has also undergone some shuffling in Pittsburgh, largely to the team’s advantage. There’s no Ryan Malone whacking in rebounds on the lip of the crease, but Bill Guerin has seven goals this spring already – one more than Malone’s total of six from last year.

Puck-mover Ryan Whitney is gone from the back end, but he contributed just one goal and six points over 20 playoff games in 2008. Kris Letang, with three goals and nine points in 16 games this year, has played a much sweeter second fiddle to Sergei Gonchar on the blueline.

What we have to assume won’t change for the Pens is the unenviable task of beating the Detroit Red Wings. Pittsburgh stands a better chance of doing it this year simply because of the fact it won’t turn in two ‘So this is what it’s like?’ games at the start of the series, as it did last season to land in an 0-2 hole.

Still, stopping the Red Wings will take everything Pittsburgh has shown thus far in the playoffs and a heroic step-up from, say, somebody like Ruslan Fedotenko, who scored two goals in Tampa Bay’s Game 7 win over Calgary in 2004.

Maybe Max Talbot has some magic in his stick. Or perhaps the aforementioned Satan catches fire for a handful of games.

Either way, the Pens need something along those lines to occur, otherwise it will be a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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