After years of falling short, the Pittsburgh Penguins are finally returning to the Stanley Cup finals

— -- PITTSBURGH -- And so seven years later, the door swings open once again to the Stanley Cup finals for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The same stage now awaits Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, as it did during that championship run of 2009.

So much time has passed, so many opportunities gone by the boards, and almost suddenly here it is again, the shot at glory many believed would be commonplace.

But in the wake of a dramatic 2-1 victory over a plucky Tampa Bay Lightning team in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night, if there is one defining characteristic about this Pittsburgh team, it's in how vastly different it is.

Sure, the stars are the defining characteristic of this Penguins team. It's hard to imagine a time when it would be anything but so.

But if those luminaries were the sum total of the team in the past -- and it's fair to suggest that was the case, given their playoff stumbles -- this team is much more. So much more.

The evidence was never clearer than in Game 7 when rookie Bryan Rust had a dominant night, scoring both goals and having a handful of glorious opportunities throughout the night.

At one point, Nick Bonino apparently leaned over to him on the Penguins bench and asked him how it felt to be a Pittsburgh hero.

Rust turned 24 during these playoffs. Nearby, Matt Cullen, 39, handed out conference championship hats to his sons, who yelped with delight. The Cullens had spent the night before watching "Sea Biscuit" and playing basement hockey.

Cullen won a Cup 10 years ago with the Carolina Hurricanes and he has chased a moment like this ever since.

"It's pretty special," he said. "I'll tell you what. You could only hope for this kind of opportunity. I'm just really thankful and you just feel so blessed to have this opportunity. You just know how hard it is to get here. These kind of opportunities don't come around often. So, pretty humbled right now."

Look around the room and you see that so many parts came together in such a fortuitous way. Cullen and his locker neighbor, Eric Fehr, were elsewhere a year ago -- Cullen, in fact, contemplating retirement.

Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel were likewise on other teams.

And then there are the kids: Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Brian Dumoulin and, of course, the goalie, Matt Murray, who turned 22 this week and will next week play in the Stanley Cup finals against the San Jose Sharks after starting the season in the American Hockey League.

"A lot of new experiences," Murray said when asked about the tension-filled third period Thursday night. "But I've said it all along, I'm just trying to enjoy myself and stay in the moment and appreciate the moment."

Count head coach Mike Sullivan among those who were not with this team a year ago, and he in fact began the season with many of those sporting conference championship gear Thursday night with the AHL affiliate.

"I know there's a lot of stories that surround this group, but the greatest story of all is the group itself," Sullivan said.

In the same office in which I spoke with general manager Jim Rutherford after the Penguins knocked off the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the second round, Rutherford said he felt there was something special about this group but admitted you never know what will happen when you bring so many disparate parts together.

"You don't know when new guys come in how they're going to fit," he said. "The one thing that we concentrated on when we were looking at making changes and new guys we were bringing in was the character of the player. We brought a lot of character guys in. And when you do that and they stick with it, they're going to come together, and this team really came together a few months ago. They've done what they needed to do to get here."

If those of us outside the walls of the locker room had wondered if it might ever happen again or at least happen with the team built the way it was, Crosby said he never judged the playoff losses in terms of how the team was built.

"Every year you look at the opportunities you have, and we were in pretty good spots for a number of those years going into the playoffs," Crosby said. "I don't think the thought was with the group -- it was just maybe the opportunity that just missed, maybe, what could that have been?"

Those are questions, at least for the moment, Crosby does need to bother himself with trying to answer.