Phil Kessel was traded to Pittsburgh last July by a Toronto Maple Leafs organization that didn’t consider him a winner.
Trevor Daley wasn’t seeing the ice in Chicago when the Blackhawks sent him to Pittsburgh in December for Rob Scuderi.
Justin Schultz was having the worst season of his pro career and viewed as a defensive liability when the Edmonton Oilers shipped him to Pittsburgh in February for a third-round draft pick.
Carl Hagelin had disappointed in Anaheim since his trade from the New York Rangers, and the Ducks gave him a change of scenery in January. The same was true for linemate Nick Bonino, who lasted with the Vancouver Canucks just one season when he was moved last summer for the second time in as many years.
Joining a mix of stars and veterans who’d been there before – like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Matt Cullen – and a bunch of kids like Conor Sheary, Brian Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl who, like their head coach Mike Sullivan, got called up from the AHL over the course of the year and won full-time jobs, those acquisitions might have seemed like a collection of misfits at the time, but you can’t call them that any longer.
Just call them Stanley Cup champions.
“It’s unbelievable,” Kessel said. “It’s so special, and I’m proud of every guy here. We worked for each other, played for each other and we ended up getting it done.”
The ending all 30 teams dream of came after a start to the year where it looked like the Penguins might miss the playoffs altogether. And then came Sullivan, a new identity and acquisitions by GM Jim Rutherford that suited it.
“We changed styles,” Malkin said. “Before I think we played more D-zone; now we play offensive zone. We have 12 speedy forwards and we use legs. We skate with the puck; we skate without the puck. We always skate.”
“Our balance was an important element,” Sullivan said. “I, as their coach, had the luxury of playing four lines and six defensemen. And when you’re playing every other night for two months to try to get here, it is a grind – physically, emotionally, in the true sense of the word.
“I think our balance was one of our strengths. We didn’t have to get overly concerned about matchups, because we felt comfortable that we could put people on the ice and they could defend if they were out against top people. That’s why we were able to sustain the pace of play. I thought it was our ultimate competitive advantage. We told our players that, and they grew to believe that.”
After Crosby ended his seven-year wait to lift the Cup for a second time, he handed it first to Daley, a 12-year veteran who’s been at his mother’s side recently as she battles cancer, and sidelined since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final with a broken ankle. Daley managed to get on skates thanks to his doctor, who “wrapped a ton of tape around” his ankle.
“Sid told me, ‘You’ve got it first,’” Daley said of his captain, who also won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. “He’s a great hockey player, but he’s an even better person.”
Daley passed the Cup to Pascal Dupuis, back in his No. 9 sweater for the first time since having to retire midseason due to a blood clot condition. Next it went to Marc-Andre Fleury, the longtime franchise goalie who started just one game of these playoffs after he struggled with a concussion, then lost the job to rookie Matt Murray – whom he continued to support as a cheerleader and mentor.
“I’m sure it’s not easy,” Crosby, Fleury’s close friend, told NBC. “He does such a great job of just being a really good teammate; everything you’d expect from Flower. That’s just the way he is. I think all three goalies – [Jeff] Zatkoff, Murr and Flower – just stuck together. They knew whoever was in there was doing a good job and, if it kept that way, it meant we were winning.”
Sunday in San Jose, after failing to win the Stanley Cup Thursday on their home ice, the Penguins came out with the critical first goal when defenseman Brian Dumoulin drew a power play then, on the man advantage, faked a shot toward Sharks goalie Martin Jones before firing it from the point and in.
The Sharks’ Logan Couture – who finished as the playoffs’ leading scorer with 30 (10G, 20A) points – got his team even early in the second. But Letang responded just over a minute later with the go-ahead goal and eventual game-winner, a testament to the resilience the team has preached and consistently demonstrated since Sullivan’s hire.
That nail-biting, one-goal lead held until 1:02 remaining, when Patric Hornqvist iced the win with an empty-net insurance goal that started the celebration on the Pittsburgh bench.
The Penguins held on Sunday with a penalty kill that shut down the Sharks’ dangerous power play – San Jose got just one power play goal on 10 chances through the entire series – and 33 blocked shots to limit the number Murray faced to 19. They won by possessing the puck the majority of the contest, just as they had all series, starting with winning 65 percent of faceoffs.
They won, as they have down the stretch and through the postseason, with contributions from the top to the bottom of their lineup.
“What I’ve loved about our group is, it seemed like every night there was a different guy stepping up, making a big play,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes it was a big goal, an overtime goal. There were subtle things. A won faceoff, a blocked shot, a killed penalty. Everybody made a contribution.
“For me to sit behind the bench and watch that unfold and be part of that in the dressing room, it’s a thrill to watch this group – the way they interact, how hard they play for one another. I think that’s the biggest reason why we were able to accomplish what we did.”
And accomplish they did – from the other teams’ castoffs, to a blueline perceived as inexperienced and soft, to the generational stars maligned for failing to deliver on multiple-Cup expectations.
“There was a lot of noise and critics out there suggesting that these guys didn’t have what it took, and I couldn’t be happier for them right now,” Sullivan said. “Now they stand and prove everybody wrong. I’m so proud of the group for coming together the way they have.”
“We believed,” Dumoulin said. “We went through a rough patch, and our fans stood behind us. We knew in the locker room we were better than what we were showing out there. We connected the pieces and figured it out, and now a storybook ending.”