PITTSBURGH - These are the five names: Nicklas Lidstrom, Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper, Tomas Holmstrom and Darren McCarty. They were there that night in Joe Louis Arena in 1997 when the Detroit Red Wings swept the Flyers out of the Stanley Cup finals, and they were there last night, again.

Four Stanley Cups. Four. Those five guys are the core. Those five guys were there for it all - from the Flyers' "choking situation'' to a six-game win over the Pittsburgh Penguins last night. They have endured through coaching changes and rules changes and economic changes and everything else - and McCarty has come back from exile, and two trips to drug rehab. They have grown old together. They have reached the summit together, again and again and again and again.

"It's hard to explain,'' Maltby was saying, standing on the ice amid all of the postgame celebrations. He was standing there, holding his young daughter.

"I wasn't even married when this started,'' he said. "I didn't have my daughter. I didn't have a family of my own. Now we're expecting twins, and I'll have all of them to enjoy it with this time.''

They had hoped to celebrate at home following Game 5 on Monday, but Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury stole the night through three overtimes. So, instead, they lifted the Cup amid the booing knuckleheads at Mellon Arena, following a 3-2 victory in Game 6.

When the Red Wings looked into the silver, seeking their reflections, this is what they saw: red and white uniforms, every manner of playoff beard, cuts and bruises, age lines around many of their eyes, history.

"I'm at a loss for words - it's just an unbelievable feeling,'' said Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg, who scored the game-winning/Cup-winning goal last night and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player (with 13 goals and 14 assists for 27 points in 22 games).

Even in the losing building, it remains professional sport's most meaningful ceremony. They bring out the Cup and people treat it with reverence, as if it is alive. The referees and the linesmen, who have all seen it before, nevertheless sit in the penalty box and watch. Even with the booing, it is something that almost all of the fans stay around to see.

This time, the Cup was lifted by Lidstrom, the first European born-and-trained captain to do so. Cupologists love to watch who the captain chooses to take the Cup after him. It tends to reveal a lot about the team, and the man.

Lidstrom chose Dallas Drake, a 39-year-old player who was drafted by the Red Wings but traded away before all of the winning started. Drake only returned to Detroit this season.

"I started thinking about it actually in the first round,'' Lidstrom said. "I didn't tell anyone about it. But I started thinking about if we were to go the whole way, who should be the guy I gave it to first. And looking at all the players on our team, Dallas is one of the first ones I played with. He came in the year after I did. He's been in the league for 16 years.

"He had a long, good career. And he had never been to the finals before. So it felt natural to me to give it to him for all the effort and hours and everything he's put into the game, and not having a chance to hoist a Cup yet.''

If that doesn't strike you as just about perfect, you have no hope of ever understanding what this sport is all about.

The Pens were overmatched in the entire series, truth be told. They won Game 3 when Sidney Crosby pretty much willed them to victory by himself. They won Game 5 when Fleury owned the longest night. But that was it. The Red Wings took about 13 more shots per game than the Penguins did, which represented only a small over-inflation of the reality.

But the Penguins gave what they had. Down 2-0 last night, Evgeni Malkin cut it to 2-1 at the end of the second period. It became 3-1 in the third period on Zetterberg's messy goal, a shot that squirted beneath Fleury and sat in the crease behind him, waiting, waiting, for Fleury to unsuspectingly back into the puck and knock it over the line himself.

It is often that way, the road to the Cup paved with heartbreaking slop like that. But even then, it wasn't nearly over. With 1:27 left, Sergei Gonchar scored a power-play goal on a shot from 50 feet through a crowd, cutting the deficit to 3-2. And the final buzzer sounded amid a wild sequence, with Detroit goaltender Chris Osgood stopping but not holding a Crosby backhand, and Marian Hossa desperately whacking at the puck as it danced harmlessly through crease.

"We always have to make it interesting,'' Osgood said. "But we never panic because of Nick Lidstrom, [former captain] Steve Yzerman and all of the guys who came before.''

Lidstrom, Holmstrom, McCarty, Maltby and Draper - all of the guys who came before.

"Well, you know, I owe a lot of people a lot of thanks,'' McCarty would say. "You know, people in the organization. My teammates for believing in me and sort of a long road back. And this is what it's all about, just to be able to be a part of it, and to play a bit of a role throughout the playoffs and to get in and to feel such a part of it.''

Again and again and again and again. *

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