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How underdog losses helped forge a champion

It took a pair of playoff setbacks as underdogs before the Penguins could call themselves champions.

Stanley Cup Finals - Pittsburgh Penguins v Detroit Red Wings - Game Seven Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Rewind back to the year 2007 and you will see the Penguins franchise coming off its first playoff season since 2001. Led by Art Ross winner and NHL MVP Sidney Crosby, a pair of Calder Trophy finalists in Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, a franchise netminder in Marc-Andre Fleury, along with a host of others, the Penguins found themselves back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with an even brighter future ahead of them.

That season, the Penguins posted 105 points, good for second in the then Atlantic division and just two points behind the New Jersey Devils. That point total was also tied for third in the Eastern Conference, but due to the playoff structure and tiebreakers, the Penguins went into the playoffs as the five seed in the Eastern Conference.

Their opponent in the first round was the Ottawa Senators, the same team they were tied with in the season standings. The Senators held home ice in the series courtesy a tiebreaker over the Penguins, but that did not matter much in the long run, as the experienced Senators overwhelmed the young Penguins in five games.

Game 5: Pittsburgh Penguins v Ottawa Senators Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

Even though the teams were even on points for the season, the Senators were considered the heavy favorites heading into the series and they showed why with a dominating performance over the underdog Penguins.

Although the Penguins were severely overmatched in the series, there were plenty of lessons to be learned from their first foray back into the playoffs, lessons they turned into almost immediate championship success.

The very next season, the Penguins continued playing at the high level they reached the season prior, and were rewarded with an Atlantic division title and the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

A rematch against the Senators awaited in the first round of the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs, and this time the Penguins were the favorites. A year after being bulldozed out of the playoffs, the Penguins flipped the script and used their youth to overpower the veteran Senators in four games.

It was much more of the same in the following two rounds for the Penguins as they marched through division rivals the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers both in five games to win the Eastern Conference and advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1992.

Waiting for the Penguins in the Final was the vaunted Detroit Red Wings, and for the first time that playoffs, the Penguins entered a series as underdogs. It was clear from the very start why the Red Wings were the favorites in the series and they imposed their will on the Penguins to win the series and the Stanley Cup in six games.

Detroit Red Wings v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Six Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Much like the season before, it was a veteran laden team rising to the occasion and overpowering the youth of the Penguins. The lessons learned a year before helped carry the Penguins to hockey’s biggest stage, but it was another lesson learned against the Red Wings that paid off in a title.

After an up and down 2008-09 season that featured the firing of a head coach and a late season push, the Penguins were back in the playoffs for the third straight season. This time, they entered as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference but without nearly as much fanfare surrounding them.

A six game victory over the rival Flyers in the first round, featuring one of the most iconic moments in franchise history, set up a meeting with the Washington Capitals who were making their first playoff appearance of the Alex Ovechkin era and their first since 2003. It was a back and forth battle between the rivals, but hard earned playoff experience helped the Penguins prevail in seven games.

That victory put the Penguins back into the Eastern Conference Finals for a second straight season where the Penguins quickly dispatched the cinderella Carolina Hurricanes in four games to set up a Stanley Cup Final rematch with the Red Wings.

Though the Red Wings were once again the heavy favorites in the series and took the first two games in Detroit, the Penguins at least felt like they belonged on the same ice this season. Twice the Penguins battled back to even the series after trailing and set up a Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena.

After two years of tough defeats and lessons learned, the Penguins relied on their experience combined with their skill to prevail in Detroit and win the franchise’s third Stanley Cup. Even as underdogs in a hostile environment, the Penguins rallied around one another and raise hockey’s holy grail.

Stanley Cup Finals - Pittsburgh Penguins v Detroit Red Wings - Game Seven Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The road to winning the Stanley Cup is not easy and is more often that not filled with numerous obstacles along the way. For the 2009 Penguins, the road to the Stanley Cup began many years prior to ever lifting the Cup in Detroit. To reach hockey’s highest summit, the franchise and players had to learn many painful lessons that they eventually turned into glory.