History is calling the Pittsburgh Penguins. Six years of injury, heartbreak and failure after their first taste of beer and champagne from Lord Stanley’s chalice in 2009, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin now have a chance to win their third Stanley Cup. Just four more wins, the Penguins will finally fulfill a destiny and become what was once expected: A dynasty.
Four more wins.
The Penguins have a chance to be the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in the salary cap era, and the first team to do it since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings. These Penguins are playing in their fourth Stanley Cup Final, which
ties surpasses the Chicago Blackhawks star-laden core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.
The Chicago Blackhawks are the standard bearer of the era. The Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups with the same core in the salary cap era. The Los Angeles Kings, like the Penguins, have two.
Win one more, with the added achievement of a back-to-back, and the Penguins will deliver on former General Manager Ray Shero’s dynastic promise.
And succeed at the only thing Mario Lemieux’s Penguins failed–a third Cup and place in hockey history.
From former General Manager Craig Patrick’s wheeling and dealing to get Marc-Andre Fleury at the top of the 2003 NHL draft, those lucky ping-pong balls which first delivered Evgeni Malkin (and not Alex Ovechkin) then Sidney Crosby, to Ray Shero’s third round selection of Kris Letang and trading offensive defenseman Ryan Whitney for Game 7 hero Chris Kunitz, the Penguins core has been in place for nine years.
There was once the coaching genius, Dan Bylsma. The author of books and a deep hockey strategy, Bylsma reset the Penguins in 2009 for their first Cup, but never adjusted to game strategies or recaptured that magic. There were nearly two years without Sidney Crosby, from 2010-2012, because of concussion issues and complications. There was Shero’s annual inability to find appropriate wingers for Crosby and acquisition of inexpensive rental players to attempt to fill that void.
The era was followed by the cerebral but quiet head coach Mike Johnston, whose 1-3-1 defensive system fit the Penguins like OJ’s glove. Johnston became the coach because most other candidates declined. Injuries again beset the team, as did infighting.
Until Mike Sullivan.
It took more years, and tears than anyone thought, but no one is complaining, now…loudly pounding of the door of history with Mike Sullivan’s booming voice behind them.
Oh, and Matt Murray could become the first rookie goaltender to begin his career with two Stanley Cups. Ken Dryden of the Montreal Canadiens also won a Stanley Cup before his rookie status expired, in 1971. But Dryden and the Canadiens did not win again until 1973.
2017 hasn’t been an easy road.
Stalwart defenseman Kris Letang played only 41 games in the regular season and will not play any in the playoffs after late-season surgery. In the playoffs, Sidney Crosby, Justin Schultz, Patric Hornqvist, Trevor Daley, Bryan Rust, and Carl Hagelin have missed games. At the current pace, that list will grow.
Yet their march towards history continues.
The Penguins march has survived a physical pounding by the fourth best team in the NHL–the Columbus Blue Jackets, a seven-game war of attrition against the President’s Trophy winner Washington Capitals, and a no-rules street fight complete with a double overtime Game 7 against the Ottawa Senators.
The Penguins indomitable spirit was evident as they won games in several fashions: Counter punching despite being badly outshot, Marc-Andre Fleury stole games, physical free-for-alls, and as they did in three of the final four games against Ottawa–relentless puck pursuit and possession.
Destiny seemed an active participant against the Penguins in Game 7, as they piled up chances throughout the game and overtime, including Phil Kessel’s fluttering shot which trickled over Anderson and bounced on the top of the net. The overhead video replay minutes later confused Sullivan and 18,000 fans, as the puck–which landed on top of the net–looked like it entered the net because of the deceptive camera angle.
The Penguins had several other opportunities, including loose pucks in front of Craig Anderson, deflections and shots from the slot, but could not beat Anderson. History of squandered Game 7’s on home ice loomed large.
Teams which squander great chances usually watch one find the back of their net, but the Penguins never relented. As they did one year ago, the Penguins won Game 7, at home to advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.
Another non-traditional market with salivating fans, an extraordinary defenseman who likes to score points, making their first appearance on the big stage stands in the way. Last year, the Penguins needed to win the Stanley Cup to cement Sidney Crosby’s place in history; a second Stanley Cup affirmed his standing in hockey history and his leadership skills.
This year, a win would cement the team’s place in history and earn a label many expected to use much earlier.
–The Penguins dominated the shot attempts, shots, puck possession but not high danger scoring chances, at least as my notebook calculated. The Penguins again relied on rolling four lines and three D-pairs, which Ottawa could not do.
It became a psychological edge for the Penguins to see Ottawa shorten their bench.
Hagelin said he looked over at Cullen during OT and told himself, “It’s not ending this way for him.” #PITvsOTT
— Matt Gajtka (@MattGajtka) May 26, 2017
–Conor Sheary was indeed an X-Factor. Sheary earned time with Crosby and nearly had a couple goals of his own. He forced Anderson to make his best save of the night on a hard one-timer from the slot, then Sheary nearly put home the rebound, but the puck skipped over his stick.
–Dion Phaneuf committed the same egregious interference penalty that Ron Hainsey committed in Game 6. It had the same result: A power play goal. Otherwise, Phaneuf was a monster in the series. He battered Malkin and mostly kept that line off the scoreboard. Even Malkin expressed his respect.
I’ve liked Phaneuf for a long time. I Covered him in Toronto when the Leafs changed his game by rolling him out 25 minutes per night. The trade to Ottawa was a godsend for him. He’s back to his ideal role. Man, could the Penguins use a guy like that.
–Scott Wilson continues to play the best hockey of his life, on the biggest stage. Kiddo has earned a goal, or five.
–The Penguins may have re-wrote the text book to beat Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 trap. The Penguins often had two forwards escape the defensive zone before their defenseman set up the breakout. The move pushed the Senators defenders deeper into the neutral zone, which created more space and stretch pass opportunities.
–Justin Schultz played a great hockey game. My analytics friends tell me it was statistically superior, but my eyes didn’t need that validation. He played big minutes, he defended his own zone well. I did not see any defensive mistakes or hesitation, as I did in the Washington series. I tried to watch closely.
–Bobby Ryan was also great in the series. He was a threat to score every time he was on the ice. He played physical against the Penguins defense in the offensive zone, and creatively with the puck. Truth–I picked him for the game winner. He had that look.
Much was made of officiating, or lack thereof. I can’t say Game 7 was a terribly officiated game, only because the bar was not set high in the previous games. The veteran crew including Dan O’Halloran, managed the game well.
However: NHL, credibility, and integrity are important to customers, of any business. You must trust a business in order to consume, purchase and recommend its product. In Game 6 especially, but throughout the series, I could not predict what would be called and what would not be called. Which means the players could not, either.
The NBA would never, EVER want the Golden State Warriors kicking Lebron James, in the paint. Lebron poking Steph Curry in the eyes, and your announcers exclaim–The NBA Finals! I would have removed his eyeball!
So, keep the physical standard to win the Cup. It heightens the fan experience and keeps weak teams from winning. But for gosh sakes, set consistent boundaries. It is the players who should be scared of committing a penalty, not your officials scared to call one.
See you in Nashville! If you find me, the Mule-Kicker is on me.