For 726 days, the Pittsburgh Penguins were on the top of the mountain. Twenty-nine, soon to be 30, franchises looked up and they saw Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Matt Murray sitting on the throne, holding hockey’s holiest prize.
On Thursday, June 7, 2018, the Capitals, yes those Capitals took their place in the history books and after defeating the Penguins in round two, took their seat at Lord Stanley’s Table.
However, we’re not here to pontificate if the Caps are worthy of our scorn, praise or indifference. This is an ode to the view from the top that we had for nearly three years.
This one’s lengthy, so grab a cold one, an Americano or whatever beverage you prefer this time of day and let’s go for a ride.
These are in no specific order.
The Mike Sullivan Era Begins
General Manager Jim Rutherford’s tenure as Penguins GM didn’t start all that well, if you recall. There was the hiring of Mike Johnston, a successful junior coach, but his coaching style for these Penguins was, to quote an old colleague Jesse Marshall, like trying to teach your cat to bark.
He wanted the Penguins to play a more defensive posture. As in, 2000s Devils defensive. It was refreshing for about a season as we were recovering from the Dan Bylsma hangover that had the Penguins completely sacrificing defense for offense. After a first round exit against the Rangers in 2015 and 15-10-3 start, GMJR pulled the trigger that begun a two-year run where he just could not miss. Johnston was out and in came Mike Sullivan.
“I think we have a chance to be a great team, but we have to show it through our actions.” – Mike Sullivan
Sullivan was the perfect and is the perfect coach for this group. He’s the leader of the group, but he knows who his horses are and how to get the best from them. Regardless of what you think is happening right now with Phil Kessel and Mike Sullivan, go watch Game Two of the Eastern Conference Final against Ottawa. Kessel is frustrated with Malkin, but goes out and scores anyway. After the game, HCMS basically says a frustrated Kessel is good for the team, because that means he’s engaged. He’s right.
Daley for Scuderi
Prior to Sullivan’s hiring, the Penguins realized to compete in the NHL they needed to be fast. Somehow, Jim Rutherford swapped anchor defenseman Rob Scuderi for a fluid skating Trevor Daley, a move that would prove invaluable to the Penguins back end in the 2016 and especially the 2017 runs.
With Vegas’ improbable run to the Cup Final this year, the thinking has changed a bit, but at the time the Western Conference was still the big boy hockey conference. To succeed you needed big defenseman that were more in the mold of 90s bruisers than what we see today in Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang. Daley didn’t fit in the Western Conference and Scuderi, well, he doesn’t exactly fit anywhere anymore.
When the Penguins were defending their title they were without Letang. Daley stepped in to take big minutes on the back end and did so admirably, even if his pairing with Maatta infuriated us all.
Again, GMJR would make the Penguins even faster on January 18th. The Penguins would send Adam Clendening and David Perron to Anaheim for Carl Hagelin. A sign that the Penguins weren’t just going to out-score you, they would out-skate you in the process.
With the additions of Daley, Hagelin and the emergence of Wilkes-Barre players such as Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust, the Penguins were back, faster and suddenly one of the hardest teams for opponents to match up with.
Following the Lead
Sidney Crosby absolutely woke up once Mike Sullivan took over. Two separate tears Sid would go on, one where he put up nine goals in nine games and then another 12-game point streak that saw him put up 20 points.
With Sid firing on all cylinders, the Penguins would clinch first round home ice advantage and go on an NHL-best 18-4-0 run from February until the end of the season. Giving them a date with the Rangers for the third time in three years.
The Kid would go on to post 19 points in 2016 with three game winning goals. The next year, he’d put up 27 points, capturing the Conn Smythe in both efforts.
There’s a serious debate to be had in 2016 if Phil Kessel was robbed of the Conn Smythe, in 2017 there was no such debate. He was head and shoulders the best player in the postseason.
Sweet. Chin. Music.
An Evgeni Malkin injury against Columbus in March would leave a hole on the second line. Allow us to introduce a line that would transcend just the game on the ice.
Nick Bonino flanked by Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin would become one of, if not the most dominant line in the National Hockey League. They teamed up for some pretty important goals…
In the 16 games Evgeni Malkin missed, the HBK Line combined for 45 points. Giving the Penguins what could be the most lethal depth in league.
They would go on to produce 20 points in 8 road games in the playoffs and when at home, well, even with a loss, they’d bring a visitor to PPG Paints Arena:
The Men in the Cage
That said, it can’t be discounted what he and Matt Murray did between 2016 and 2017.
A concussion against the Nashville in late 2016 would sideline Marc-Andre Fleury and in would come 21 year old Matt Murray….then he would get concussed.
No one had any idea if Fleury or Murray would be available for Game One against the Rangers. Lo and behold, it was Mr. Game One.
Fleury’s concussion would leave him on the bench for the 2016 run, save for one game against the Lightning in the Eastern Final. Matt Murray would take over the starting job after winning the 2016 Stanley Cup and posting 15 wins, one shutout and a .923 SV%, but it was Fleury’s swan song that none of us saw coming.
Matt Murray would be sidelined during warmups prior to Game One against Columbus in round one in 2017.
Enter, Marc-Andre Fleury.
The surprise starter would carry the Penguins past the Blue Jackets and Capitals and two games against Ottawa before being replace by Murr.
His statline overall from the 2017 playoffs saw a .924%, the third best of his Stanley Cup Playoff career. Keeping Murr was absolutely the right decision, but there’s no denying Fleury’s performance in the 2017 playoffs made that a more difficult one.
Win It For…
The Penguins two Stanley Cup runs were not short of storylines, as this post has shown so far.
Whether it was winning it for the team dad Matt Cullen, getting the wily old vets in Ron Hainsey and Chris Kunitz or…hang on, I need a moment.
It’s dusty in here, shut up. Pascal Dupuis may not have been an elite winger and I know I often rattle against “intangibles” but there aren’t many more quality human beings in this world than Dupuis. Winning in 2016 was for him and for Trevor Daley.
It didn’t come out until later in the playoffs, but Trevor Daley’s mother Trudy was stricken with cancer and once the team was informed, GMJR made sure to allow him to get home several times to see her and there was this anecdote:
After learning about his ailing mother, Crosby assured Daley he would be the first to get the Cup. “It was pretty special,” Daley said. “He’s a great player, but he’s an even better person. There’s not much more you can say about that guy. He’s a special guy.” – The Hockey News
Vets, parents, former teammates and Marc-Andre Fleury, this two year run was jam packed with just about every kind of storyline you would want.
Dear god, the parades.
The Penguins, after six years (shut up, I know that’s not a long drought) of takes, dumb trade rumors, first round exits and so much more, they partied their absolute asses off.
Playoff overtimes, game sevens and so much more became the Penguins’ boogeyman in the postseason following 2009.
Hell, even reaching all the way back, game sevens on home ice were nightmares. Beginning in 2016, this all changed.
2016 Round Two, Game Four – Hornqvist
Up two games to one against the President’s Trophy winner Capitals, the Penguins were poised to win their third straight against the Capitals, effectively stealing home ice from them.
Pittsburgh-native Mike Weber would gift Patric Hornqvist with a wide open chance and putting the Penguins one win away from the Conference Final.
2016 Round Two, Game Six
We already covered it. HBK, Bonino buries the OT winner to send the Caps home.
2016 Eastern Conference Final, Game Two
“Sidney Crosby has never scored a playoff overtime goal in his career!”
After a stunning game one loss to Tampa, a game that saw Ben Bishop hurt and ruled out for the rest of the series, the Penguins had forfeit home ice to the Lightning.
After sixty minutes, the Penguins were one bounce away from falling down 2-0 going back to Florida.
That would change just 40 seconds into OT as the captain would finally get an overtime winner.
2016 Stanley Cup Final, Game Two
A set play by the captain, an elite pass by Letang and a perfectly placed shot by Conor Sheary gave the Pens a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final.
Poor Martin Jones. Guy was the only reason this series wasn’t a 4-0 sweep.
2017 Round One, Game Three
The last two postseasons have been the Jake Guentzel Show (even if Sid was driving the train in 2017, he had Jake-N-Bake riding shotgun) and it all began against the Blue Jackets.
With two goals already, the Pens headed to OT tied at four. As a fanbase, we got our brooms ready as Jake would send the series back to Pittsburgh with a 3-0 series lead.
2017 Eastern Conference Final, Game Seven
The mother of all nightmares for the Penguins franchise. Game seven on home ice. Going to overtime. From Fifth Avenue downtown to Jefferson Avenue in WashPa, sphincters tightened and suddenly the name David “fucking” Volek started to enter some mouths.
One single bounce, one post, you name it…it could spell the end of what was going to be another magical ride to Lord Stanley’s Castle.
“…fresh from the bench it’s Crosby, Crosby on, Kunitz a shot, SCORE!!! Penguins win it!!! And they go to the Final!!!”
For two years, the Pittsburgh Penguins reached the pinnacle of the sport. For the second time in their history they held on to the Stanley Cup for two straight years.
We can tweet, talk, scream and call all we want about what they need to do this offseason, but let us not forget what happened between June 12, 2016 and June 11, 2017.
For 726 days, 17,424 hours and 10 playoff rounds, the Stanley Cup took up residence in Pittsburgh, Pa.
With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang losing to their true nemesis in round two, it might not be too far-fetched to think it just may move home after a semester in DC.