NASHVILLE – There the Pittsburgh Penguins stood, at center ice of the Bridgestone Arena Sunday night barely able to muster the strength to lift a 35-pound trophy over their heads. They were more relieved than happy, a physically and mentally drained group of athletes who could not possibly get their heads around the magnitude of what they had just accomplished.
They say the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy in team sports to win. And they’re right about that. You might be a little confused at this point if you’re not familiar with hockey, given that the Penguins have won the past two Cups and all. Even Penguins CEO David Morehouse, as he hugged one of the Penguins minority owners during the on-ice celebrations, had to explain that this really doesn’t happen every year. Then the guy made a joke about franchise valuation and the two of them laughed, sharing the kind of humor only those with big money could understand.
The fact is, there are almost no superlatives that can describe what the Penguins have accomplished. They have truly established themselves as one of the all-time great teams in NHL history, winning the Cup not once, but twice, in an era when repeating is more difficult than ever. There’s a reason why the Detroit Red Wings were the last team to do it almost two decades ago. As great as the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have been, they never did it. No team has done it during the salary cap era, and you could argue that no team has overcome more adversity to win than the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins. This is a Stanley Cup that is going to be cherished by all those involved for a long, long time.
“This group of players has overcome so many adversities,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “We met with them on Day 1 of training camp and the first thing I said to them was, ‘Everybody is telling us that we can’t do it. History is telling us, all the experts are telling us we can’t repeat.’ And my challenge to them was, ‘Why not?’ We weren’t going to let anyone else write our story. These guys wanted to write the story themselves and they did it.”
They did it by playing the best and third-best regular season teams in the first two rounds of the playoffs. They did it by grinding their way past an Ottawa Senators team that would not die and tried to slow the Penguins to a crawl. And they did it by defeating a high-flying Nashville Predators squad that had crushed every opponent it had faced in the playoffs to this point. And they did it by defying the age-old theory that defense wins championships. If that were the case, the Predators would have dispatched the Penguins in four straight games because the blueline matchup was so lopsided it bordered on laughable. Missing their best defenseman with a six-man corps that was running on fumes, the Penguins managed to get it done against a defense corps that is unparalleled in the NHL.
But all that defense corps did was not allow a single goal in the final two games of the Stanley Cup final, although there’s little doubt that Colton Sisson’s second-period goal, which was blown dead prematurely by referee Kevin Pollock. The same league that calls back goals that were 1/100th of an inch offside a minute before a goal is scored cannot use video review to call back honest mistakes by officials, who consequently get hung out to dry. (That’s a rant for another day, however.)
And they did it with an MVP performance from Sidney Crosby, the best player in the world and a player who, in GM Jim Rutherford’s opinion, now has to be considered with the top three or four players who have ever played the game. In reality, the vote for the Conn Smythe Trophy could have gone to either Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and nobody would have complained. It probably should have gone to the goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, but NHL rules prohibit voting for dual recipients. Crosby has undoubtedly cemented his place among the game’s great players.
“I think he’s built a legacy here through this body of work,” Sullivan said. “You look at that Game 5. He took this team on his back and willed a win for us. That just speaks to the character of the person.”
Crosby, as usual, was reticent to talk about his own accomplishments. Part of the reason for that is he’s a humble superstar. But perhaps another reason is he knows he and the Penguins are not finished yet. As Sullivan said, this is a team that is intent on writing its own story. Crosby is just 29 and is under contract for another eight years, Malkin is 30 and tied up for another five. Phil Kessel is around for five more years and the Penguins are bound to get some cap relief when goalie Marc-Andre Fleury moves on in the next week or so. Rutherford, who was supposed to ride off into the sunset and hand the reins to Jason Botterill, said there will be a few more sunsets. Botterill, meanwhile, has moved on to the Buffalo Sabres, which means Rutherford will be around for a while. Teams with a top-heavy core of talent have proved to be successful and the Penguins have that. And they’ve already proved you don’t need a star-studded defense corps to win a championship.
They may not win again next year, but there’s no reason to believe the Penguins will not be in the mix as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the foreseeable future.
“We have a pretty good team here,” Rutherford acknowledged.