The run is over, but we witnessed something which no other team did before, and in the process watched greatness unfold before our eyes. We watched promise fulfilled, and promises finally kept. The Pittsburgh Penguins won back to back Stanley Cup championships and chased a third with everything they had left. The NHL culture and schedule were as much to blame as injury and ineffectiveness. But what an amazing ride.
(*The story was first published on May 11, 2018, as part of a multi-part series).
In the end, you return to the beginning. In late 2015, the Penguins were spiraling out of control, and the implosion was imminent. The Penguins two-headed monster of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had failed to deliver team success after they won a Stanley Cup as near-children in 2009. They privately bickered with themselves and the organization, which culminated with the infamous New Jersey locker room meltdown in November 2015.
This writer was in the building and locker room that night. The feeling was dark and heavy. The privately told stories were not complimentary of anyone. It was a bloodletting and rock bottom.
In 2014, Jim Rutherford filled the Penguins GM job after being shoved into retirement by the fledgling Carolina Hurricanes. Rutherford fired coach Dan Bylsma, then shipped off popular James Neal for Patric Hornqvist. However, after the Penguins very public fumbling of their GM search, no coach of value would touch the Penguins vacant job.
With head coach Mike Johnston, the Pittsburgh Penguins were again Round 1 fodder to the New York Rangers.
In 2015, Rutherford acquired the American sniper Phil Kessel from Toronto. And, Rutherford dealt Brandon Sutter for a package including Nick Bonino.
However, none of it was working. In November 2015, the end was nigh.
In December, Mike Sullivan became the next unheralded Penguins head coach. Sullivan had been a long time assistant coach with several stops in the employ of John Tortorella since Sullivan’s short two-season stint as the Boston Bruins head man from 2003-2006.
In the darkness, a spark lit the Pittsburgh Penguins fire. Sullivan’s new, aggressive approach and commanding style were gaining traction, but the coach was still struggling for “buy-in” weeks after getting the job.
On Dec. 31, 2015, it happened. Everything clicked. What was ugly was suddenly bright with hope, and the first rays of light shown in one of the darkest places: the old Joe Louis Arena in downtown Detroit. The very same building where the young Penguins core hoisted their first (and then only) Stanley Cup.
The Penguins, who had not rallied from a third period deficit in over a year, finally did so on that New Year’s Eve 2015. The stumbling Penguins spotted the Red Wings a two-goal lead before roaring back. The game was physical, and the Penguins matched Detroit’s bruising play and speed. Actually, they exceeded both.
With a glowing black eye, Hornqvist stood in the middle of that old locker room and held court. He basked in the attention as the room filled with excitement. Players were yelling to each other, not at each other. The Penguins were rushing out of the arena to get to a holiday party, but that was only part of the excitement.
Something special was brewing, whether they knew it or not. (This writer did, and many of them did too).
Weeks earlier, Rutherford acquired Trevor Daley for Rob Scuderi. Weeks later, Rutherford acquired Carl Hagelin for David Perron. The Penguins recalled goaltender Matt Murray at mid-season because starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a concussion.
Months earlier, nothing worked. Now, everything worked.
The momentum was palpable. The Penguins lost on the road to the powerhouse Washington Capitals on March 1, but that only served to add more fuel to the fire. Matt Cullen emerged as a team leader, and the late February injury absence of Evgeni Malkin birthed the dynamic HBK line with Hagelin, Bonino, and Kessel. The Penguins won 15 of their last 16 and stormed the playoffs despite being beset by injuries to Malkin and Fleury.
The First Cup Run
Fleury, who held the team together in the darkest moments, was injured. Murray, the untested kid who shut down the AHL, was injured. But that was no matter. The Pittsburgh Penguins steamrolled through their nemesis New York Rangers in five games. The Rangers ended the previous two Penguins seasons in Round 1 but were no longer a match for the Penguins.
One critical moment in Penguins history marked the Round One series. In Game 3, the rookie Murray laid claim to the Penguins net. Murray has since never relinquished it.
The Penguins and the HBK line zipped past the Washington Capitals in six games, including Bonino’s overtime, series-winning goal. Cullen and Tom Kuhnhackl provided a spark from the fourth line. Even wrestler Shawn Michaels, the original HBK (Heart Break Kid) made an appearance during the series. Penguins fever was spreading.
Remember Bonino, Bonino, Bonino?
Next was the defending Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay Lightning. To be the man, the Penguins had to beat the man. And they did but not without a heart-stopping seven-game series. Fleury had a chance to reclaim the net in Game 5 but lost in overtime. It was his only playoff start.
The excitement and the crowds in Pittsburgh were growing nightly. The innovative outdoor screen was drawing thousands of people.
The San Jose Sharks were merely a speed bump as the Pittsburgh Penguins Corsi-loving juggernaut was in high gear.
I believe this is Brent Burns and Joe Thornton. They are walking around Pittsburgh’s North Shore and don’t give ONE HELL. pic.twitter.com/T7t8LiLlBy
— Colin Dunlap (@colin_dunlap) October 19, 2016
In one of the great moments in Pittsburgh sports history or general Pittsburgh history, over 20,000 people crowded the outdoor screen before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. Even the players were taken aback. In fact, the emotion so intense and the atmosphere so thick, the Penguins played one of their worst games of that Cup run. They had to win the Stanley Cup in San Jose.
The outpouring of love from fans was the pent-up, unrequited love which was withheld for years because of underperforming, whining, petulant, stubborn failure. The teams assembled to win Stanley Cups had not since their singular moment of 2009 glory. So nearly 19,000 fans on the inside poured out their guts while 20,000 more outside just needed to be a part of it all, too.
For anyone who was there, players, employees, media, and fans, it was an extraordinary sight.
The following parade to Point State Park was record-breaking, too…
The 2016 run was special because it came after nearly everyone thought it impossible, and the window closed.
For me, that season provided the chance to cover road games and take my son on a few road trips. We spent weekends in New York City and our last Father-Son road trip, which was the Round 2 trip to D.C. The young man has gone away to college and is set to begin the rest of his life, shortly.
(Update: there is now a third-generation. Perhaps you’ve seen our little buddy, Leo on Twitter).
For others, the Game 6 OT winner by Nick Bonino seems to be the biggest moment
I had never been to a playoff game for any of the Pgh sports teams. So my moment was being at game 6 when Bonino scored in OT. I never screamed louder or jumped higher out of my seat
— Jeff Frankenstein (@jhf621) May 9, 2018
Bonino OT goal vs Caps.
— Paul McDaniel (@paulmcd1232) May 9, 2018
Sid’s goal in game 6 vs Tampa. Not a game winner, but an amazing goal to seal a win with the Pens facing elimination. https://t.co/w0plOawYzu
— Hot Dog Thursday (@hotdogthursday) May 9, 2018
And for some, the Rangers Round 1 series was life-changing.
I met my (now) fiancé during the Rangers series. #HockeyLove
— Medina Marie (@MedinaMarie_PI) May 9, 2018
Penguins closing out the Rangers on my wedding day, April 23rd! Helped ease my nerves leading up to the big moment.
— Shawn Green (@Tha_Green_1) May 9, 2018
— mlowrey (@ontopmtwash) May 9, 2018
Letang’s shift on the GWG of the final
— Lionel Hutz (@tpenguin44) May 9, 2018
Not during the run, but during the Summer after the win, we got to celebrate in style. First by announcing our twin girls and then by celebrating with the Stanley Cup when it came to DC. pic.twitter.com/B4jje39wXX
— Nick Vucic (@npv708) May 9, 2018
Favorite memory is game 7 against the Bolts. Until that tilt I was never at a game 7 Pens victory. My run of heartbreak started with the ’74 NYI game and ran thru the 2011 1-0 loss to the Bolts. As a matter of fact, people were trying to pay me not to go to the ’16 Tampa gig 🙂
And finally–the star of the 2016 Cup Run: Bobblehead Colby
Leave your 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins memories below