The Pittsburgh Penguins did it the hard way. But they’re used to that.
They entered the playoffs without Kris Letang, their best defenseman and arguably the most important player to their style of play.
They were the NHL’s seventh-most injured team through the regular season, and among the top in the impact of those injuries.
They played 25 playoff games, most of any team, taking two series to seven games and one of those to double overtime.
They eliminated two of the league’s top four teams in the postseason, including the Presidents’ Trophy winners.
They played 213 hockey games over the past two seasons, most of any team in history in that timeframe. And, more than once during these playoffs, it looked like the fatigue and injuries might finally catch up to them.
So, naturally, before they could become the first team in two decades to win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, the Penguins had a little more to battle in Game 6.
Facing a fast, physical and now desperate Nashville team, Penguins goaltender Matt Murray had to be perfect to counter the performance of Predators counterpart Pekka Rinne. And he was – with one exception.
Early in the second period, Murray lost control of Filip Forsberg’s shot attempt. Referee Kevin Pollack, unable to see the puck, thought Murray had it and blew the whistle. But he didn’t, and forward Colton Sissons swooped in to poke it into an empty net.
Perhaps to make up for that blown call, Pittsburgh went on to spend 7:28 of the game on the penalty kill – including an abbreviated 5-on-3 early in the third period – as the Predators got more opportunities to open the scoring.
Nashville couldn’t take advantage of those chances, though, as Pittsburgh’s penalty kill came through with a flawless night. That effort was led by Murray; by 40-year-old Matt Cullen, who led Penguins forwards with 19:42 of ice time and 4:42 on the PK in what was likely his final NHL game; and by defenseman Brian Dumoulin, who logged a Letang-like 26:08, including 5:17 on the penalty kill.
So the score remained tied at 0-0 as the minutes ticked down. And, just as it seemed that neither goalie would blink, Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist – traded from the Predators for James Neal at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft – banked in a shot off of Rinne from behind the goal line with just 1:35 remaining.
The Penguins were outshot in 17 of their 25 playoff games, an NHL record for a Stanley Cup-winning team. But they had the playoffs’ top four scorers in Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and rookie Jake Guentzel. Guentzel, a 22-year-old AHL call-up during the regular season, led all players with 13 goals, five of them game-winners.
Murray, still just 23 himself, led all goalies (other than Calgary’s Chad Johnson, who played just one game) with a .937 save percentage and 1.70 goals-against average. He also became the first goalie in NHL history to win two Stanley Cups while still being classified as a rookie.
Crosby won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for the second consecutive year.
“We set out to try to go back-to-back,” the Penguins captain said. “We knew it was going to be difficult, but I think that’s probably where the most joy comes out of – just knowing how difficult it is and that we overcame all those things. It’s a pretty special group, I’ll say that.”
In keeping with tradition, Crosby handed off the Stanley Cup first to a veteran who never had the chance to lift it – defenseman Ron Hainsey, who played 907 NHL games without so much as making the playoffs before joining the Penguins at the trade deadline.
“I love the game and I thank God every day for the opportunity to play in this league for so long,” said Cullen, who’s been with the Penguins for two years and two championships. “I just can’t believe it worked out this way, but I’m so appreciative of it. It’s such a humbling experience; I never expected to have this opportunity. It’s just nice to be able to be a part of this.”
Then it was on to Chris Kunitz, an unrestricted free agent who’s won three of his four Stanley Cups – most among all active players – with the Penguins.
Later, there was a poignant moment where longtime franchise netminder Marc-Andre Fleury – responsible for nine Pittsburgh wins to get them to the Eastern Conference Final – made a point of handing the Cup off to his heir, who finished the job.
This group, which returned largely intact from last year’s Stanley Cup championship team, will look a little different next year.
After 14 years, Fleury is likely headed off to the next chapter of his career, either with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights or another team. Along with Cullen’s expected retirement, Kunitz is an unrestricted free agent. So is center Nick Bonino, who played two periods of the Stanley Cup Final with a tibia that was broken all the way through – and still kept trying to return. Defensemen Trevor Daley, Chad Ruhwedel, Hainsey and Mark Streit are unrestricted, too.
But first, this group will soak in their city’s love and appreciation for the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup championship at a parade later this week.
“It’s hard to express it in words how proud we are of this group of players,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, who became the first American-born coach to win two Stanley Cups. “You know, I’ve said on a number of occasions that they’re such a privilege to coach, and I mean that so sincerely. These guys are such great people, first and foremost, and they’re terrific hockey players.
“You don’t win championships without character, and I believe we have it in abundance in our dressing room. So we’re grateful for the commitment and the sacrifice that this group of players continue to make on a daily basis to win championships. We push them hard to try to get the best out of them, and these guys embrace every challenge we give them.”