Tears filled Patric Hornqvist’s eyes. He had done it. The Pittsburgh Penguins had done it. The Penguins became the first and only team in the salary cap era, and first in nearly 20 years to be back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.
The emotion was so thick on June 11, 2017 that Hornqvist couldn’t hear his name be called by coaches to go for his final shift. With only 1:37 remaining in Game 6, Hornqvist broke a scoreless tie with a vintage Hornqvist-type goal.
Justin Schultz fired a shot to the left of goaltender Pekka Rinne. Hornqvist created separation between he and Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis in front of the net and managed to track the shot. The former Predator corralled the puck from below the goal line and banked the puck off of Rinne’s shoulder for the game-winning and Stanley Cup-winning goal.
Hornqvist’s pinnacle moment came with a beaten path of controversy. Earlier in Game 6, Matt Murray lost control of a shot from Predators forward Filip Forsberg. His teammate Colton Sissons chipped the puck in the yawning cage for was seemed to be the opener. However, the referee lost sight of the puck. No goal.
This was simply the final hurdle these Penguins faced in the series. Somehow the Penguins won the opener 5-3 with only 12 registered shots on goal. Game 1 featured more controversy, with an overturned P.K. Subban goal after replay showed the play was offside.
The Penguins were pummeled in Games 3 and 4, but bounced back with a 6-0 victory at home for Game 5. If there was still any doubt after Hornqvist’s late goal in Game 6, Carl Hagelin put that to bed with an empty-netter.
Somehow, especially in the salary cap era, almost all the Penguins that watched the banner raise on opening night that season were the ones responsible for it. The champs dominated all of 2016, even after the first of their back-to-back Stanley Cups. When the ball dropped in Times Square to usher in 2017, the Penguins were a preposterous 25-8-5.
Early 2017 was more of a cool-down period. The Penguins could only manage a .500 record in January despite a wild, 8-7 victory over the Washington Capitals, but they were strong down the regular season stretch.
Then the Kris Letang news broke — the Penguins would be without their top defenseman for the playoffs.
Then Murray suffered a torn hamstring warming up for Game 1. Luckily for the Penguins, they had a familiar face to fill the void in the crease.
Seventy-two saves for Marc-Andre Fleury over the first two games and Jake Guentzel’s Game 3 hat trick all but ended the Blue Jackets season. Yet again, the Penguins had a date in the capital.
After going up 3-1 in the series and avenging the Matt Niskanen cross-check to the head of Sidney Crosby, the Capitals forced seventh heaven. Fleury, as he’s done so many times, shut the door and coincidentally stopped all 29 shots he faced in Game 7.
The Ottawa Senators were a surprising challenge to the defending champs. The Senators 1-3-1 defensive structure caused fits for the Penguins, and the Sens’ offensive unit was unusually productive in the first four games of the series.
Game 7 was widely dominated by the Penguins, but Senators’ goaltender Craig Anderson stood on his head until the goal heard ‘round the Golden Triangle, at 5:09 of double overtime.
Chris Kunitz’s goal propelled the resilient Penguins to the Stanley Cup final. Kunitz told NBC’s Pierre McGuire how they did it after Game 7 against the Senators.
“We have a good group,” Kunitz said. “We have that next-man-up mentality. It’s been awesome. We enjoy going to the rink every day and it hasn’t stopped for two years.”
Two championships in 364 days. What a year it was.