For the fourth time in franchise history, the Pittsburgh Penguins are Stanley Cup Champions. They earned it by outplaying and out-grinding the San Jose Sharks in a hard fought six-game series. After failing to close it out on home ice, the Penguins got the job done by defeating the Sharks 3-1 in Game 6 at a loud Shark Tank.
Even with fan favorites Evgeni Nabokov, Scott Hannan and Kyle McLaren part of the former Sharks who opened the locker room door for the current cast to come out of the Shark Tank in what is the coolest introduction in the NHL, it wasn’t enough to stop the Pens from destiny. Throughout the whole postseason, coach Mike Sullivan’s deep group were the best team. Ever since he took over along with key additions Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin along with kids Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary, they were a determined and scrappy bunch who dominated for long stretches.
To their credit, the Sharks played the Penguins on even terms for two periods. However, they still trailed on the scoreboard 2-1 with Kris Letang’s huge goal from Crosby 1:19 after Logan Couture tied it, holding up as the Cup clincher.For 40 minutes, San Jose trailed by a goal and in shots 20-17. Despite taking turns carrying the play with the relentless Penguins, they never could find that tying goal against winning rookie netminder Matt Murray. He didn’t have to be great turning aside 18 of 19 shots. Particularly in a third period controlled by the Pens’ speed and possession and defense. They only allowed two shots to preserve the lead until Patric Hornqvist added the empty netter with 1:02 left from Crosby.
Simply put, they were the better team. Whether or not part of it had to do with a few key Sharks wearing down, the Penguins’ style was the reason they prevailed. That Letang would get the game-winner was fitting. Passed over for the league’s top defenseman with misguided voters choosing Erik Karlsson over him, Letang put on a great performance the whole playoffs. While Crosby mysteriously was named Conn Smythe by the loudly booed commissioner Gary Bettman with 19 points (6-13-19), it was Letang who logged so many big minutes for Sullivan without missing a beat. Offensively and defensively, he was a tower of strength on a blue line that lost Daley to a broken ankle. Along with Olli Maatta and underrated performers Brian Dumoulin and Ben Lovejoy, Letang did a fantastic job in all aspects. He also wound up with 15 points (3-12-15). Not far behind Crosby, who dominated Games 5 and 6 with his grinding style.
When asked about playing with Crosby on the enemy after coming over from Anaheim in a trade, Hagelin told NBC reporter Jeremy Roenick, “He’s the best grinder in the world.”
It was an interesting description for a player who’s now won two Cups along with two Hart Trophies and a Conn Smythe even if there were other deserving candidates. Crosby definitely was all over the ice. From the opening faceoff when he gave Joe Thornton a two-hander which got a reply from the bearded veteran, Crosby played a great game setting up Letang and Hornqvist while attempting 10 shots, blocking four and winning 13 of 17 draws. He wasn’t able to beat Martin Jones, who stood on his head for the entire series. If not for Jones’ brilliance in net, the Pens probably sweep. He wound up with 24 saves including some more miraculous stops that at least gave his team a chance. Had the series gone seven, Jones might’ve won the Conn Smythe even if the Sharks lost. That’s how special his performance was in defeat.
With the game scoreless, Dumoulin converted on the power play when his seeing eye shot went through a screen in front past Jones, who didn’t pick it up. The power play goal was a direct result of a ill advised tripping penalty on former Devil Dainius Zubrus. The slow footed forward couldn’t keep up during the series. San Jose coach Pete DeBoer stuck with him too long. Even though Zubrus later had a strong shift keeping a puck in that led to a rare Sharks’ chance in a first that saw them only fire four shots on Murray, he was badly exposed along with Tommy Wingels. DeBoer shortened his bench a second straight game with neither seeing much ice when the Sharks fell behind.
Only some acrobatic saves from Jones which included three consecutive monster stops on a flurry started by Crosby kept it 1-0 after one. He continued to make the clutch saves. Finally, Brent Burns intercepted a pass in the neutral zone and fed Couture for a break-in. The Sharks’ best forward was able to beat Murray through the five-hole to tie the score at 6:27 of the second. Melker Karlsson drew the other assist. He and Joonas Donskoi had good series. Couture led all scorers in the postseason with 30 points (10-20-30). Burns finished second with 24 (7-17-24). Captain Joe Pavelski was third going 14-9-23 despite only one goal in the Stanley Cup Final.
Phil Kessel led the Pens with 22 points (10-12-22) while playing on the HBK line featuring Hagelin (6-10-16) and Nick Bonino (4-14-18). Any one of them could’ve won playoff MVP and nobody would’ve blinked an eye. Without the speed and tenaciousness of the HBK line, there is no Cup for Pittsburgh, who also won their third championship back in ’09 in similar fashion- replacing the coach mid-season. That time, it was Dan Bylsma who pushed the right buttons with Evgeni Malkin dominating to win Conn Smythe. He finished with 18 points (6-12-18) during this run.
Pittsburgh won because they were a complete team. They faced elimination against Tampa Bay but rallied back to win the final two games of the Eastern Conference Final in convincing fashion. They also were resilient. Following Couture’s tying goal, a dominant shift from the Crosby line resulted in Letang’s winner. He kept the puck in and eventually received a gorgeous pass from Crosby and was able to squeak a quick one-timer off Jones’ pads and in.
Sullivan did a masterful job getting the match-up he wanted. All series, former Penguin and Devil Paul Martin struggled with the Pens’ speed. He and slow partner Roman Polak were caught out at the wrong time. That they were even paired up and going up against Crosby and Letang was a huge mistake by DeBoer. The faster and more skilled Pens pounced with Letang scoring his third of the postseason at 7:46 of the second. So, the game was tied for all of 81 seconds before the Pens retook the lead and silencing the crowd.
The officiating wasn’t good either. They missed an icing on the Pens and probably a call on Maatta. However, they were equally as bad in Game 5 with some bad misses on the Sharks. Also, the officials missed an obvious bench minor on San Jose tonight when they had seven out. Overall, officiating was inconsistent in the series. The only power play the Sharks got was a Sheary hook early in the third. But they didn’t get a sniff with the Pens’ aggressive penalty kill not allowing a shot. They were splendid. In particular, Matt Cullen did some solid work despite having his ankle frozen. He played through pain since the early part of the third round. He last won a Cup with Carolina 10 years ago with another rookie goalie Cam Ward winning the Conn Smythe.
The Sharks were able to kill off a Burns slashing minor with under seven minutes left. But time was running short. They couldn’t even muster more than a shot due to the Pens getting in lanes. They played the Torts style under Sullivan. When they weren’t busy hounding the Sharks on the fore-check, they made life difficult for San Jose to even get looks. It was similar to how they dominated the Lightning in a 2-1 win in Game 7 along with a one-goal win over the Rangers in Game 3 of the first round.
San Jose just couldn’t do anything. They never had a chance. They were up against a relentless team that wouldn’t give in. Maybe the Pens did it for Pascal Dupuis. The very popular Penguin was forced to retire due to blood clots. When it was finally over, it was nice to see him get the Stanley Cup from Daley. Both were back in a Pens jersey with it touching that Dupuis got to wear his number 9 one final time. After Crosby handed the trophy to Daley, Dupuis received it and got loud cheers from the Pens fans who were in attendance.
On a emotional night in which they paid tribute to Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe with a moment of silence before the contest and a short video tribute prior to the start of the second, the Pens earned their fourth Cup. Everyone got to lift the trophy including a joyous Hagelin, who I felt good for. He deserved it. So did Kessel, who had to endure so much criticism from those clowns in Toronto. Well…what do idiots like Steve Simmons have to say now? That kind of lunacy is why Kessel didn’t win the Conn Smythe. Because of biased Canadian writers who should be put out to pastor.
This in no way is a knock on Crosby. He’s a fantastic player and will no doubt finish runner-up to Patrick Kane for the Hart. If not, there should be an investigation. It’s hard to justify giving Crosby playoff MVP when he didn’t even lead his team in scoring and finished a minus-two in the playoffs. In truth, it has become a team award. Where the most popular player can win it because that’s what writers like James Mirtle think is best. Another clueless Canadian journalist.
In the end, it’s all about the Cup. For the Pens, they’re champions. Unfortunately, there’s a winner and a loser. As I know from watching our team fall short against the Kings in 2014, it’s always hard to see the losing team after it ends. The Sharks all gathered around Jones congratulating him while the Pens celebrated by mobbing Murray, who fell to the ice. Their fans saluted them with a loud ovation and one more “Let’s Go Sharks!” chant. Following the handshake which seemed to take forever as NBC interviewed Crosby and others, the Sharks saluted their fans, who just might be the best in hockey.
Even though it was odd seeing Hagelin lift the trophy and talk to Roenick, I was happy for him. And even if I can’t stand that team, I still was able to enjoy the Cup celebration which always has some funny moments. One of the Pens’ assistants nearly dropped it before being saved which led to Crosby and teammates laughing. You also had Maatta pose for it with his baby inside. Plus the always cool team photo with guys falling backwards to the ice to get in.
There’s no better trophy in sports. There’s no harder trophy to win. Hats off to the Penguins.