Back to back champs. It’s a rare occurrence in the NHL these days. Indeed, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Cup victory this week makes them the first club to accomplish the two-peat since Detroit in ’97 and ’98. Sidney Crosby led the Penguins to a six-game victory over the Nashville Predators in a series that was full of momentum swings, strange calls, impressive goaltending and sheer gutsiness.
Home ice played a major role in this final, with the home team holding serve every game until the deciding game 6, when Pittsburgh won a 2-0 nailbiter in the last 90 seconds to silence a roaring Smashville crowd. The first two games in the Steel City were largely dominated by the Preds everywhere but on the scoreboard, as the Penguins were able to solve the previously dominant Pekka Rinne by 5-3 and 4-1 scores. Back in Nashville, the Predators won games 3 and 4 by resounding 5-1 and 4-1 scores as Rinne bounced back and the offense stepped up. But Matt Murray responded with two straight shutouts as the Pens outscored Nashville 8-0 in games 5 and 6.
The Pens were also able to overcome a decimated defense corps and its own struggles in the faceoff circle. One big reason was the sheer depth of its forwards: Crosby and rookie Jake Guentzel (who led the playoffs in goal scoring with 13) on the top line, playing scoring leader Evgeni Malkin (29 points) and sniper Phil Kessel on the second, veterans Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen on the third. Ultimately, it was the fourth line that did the damage in game 6: ex-Pred Patric Hornqvist scored the game-winner and Carl Hagelin potted the empty netter to seal it away.
Nashville had injury issues of its own to deal with: Ryan Ellis of the vaunted top 4 defense group was battling through undisclosed injuries and top scorer Ryan Johansen was out for the final. Meanwhile, goals were hard to come by for the Preds in games other than the two wins at home. Sniper Filip Forsberg was largely silenced (except for an empty netter in game 4) and fourth-liner Frederick Gaudreau was the team’s leading goal scorer in the finals with three (also his first three goals in the NHL).
Preds fans, who were loud and proud the whole playoff run, had to wonder what would have been if the team hadn’t had two big goals overturned by questionable calls. In game 1, PK Subban scored what looked to be the series’ first goal, but it was wiped out by a coach’s challenge because replay officials ruled that Forsberg’s right skate was in the air as he received the pass to enter the zone. And then in game 6, in a tight scoreless game, Colton Sissons’ goal was wiped out because referee Kevin Pollock blew the play dead when he lost sight of the puck; it had trickled through Murray’s legs and right to Sissons, who tapped it in. That was a tough pill to swallow for Nashville, but the Preds had plenty of chances to score in that game, including a couple of foiled breakaways and a couple of shots that hit posts.
Crosby and Subban kept things interesting throughout the series with their battles, but it was the Penguins captain who prevailed, finishing with a Cup final high seven points on the way to his second consecutive Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP. He consistently came up with big plays when his team needed it, whether it was a goal, an assist, a faceoff win or a defensive play. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny the man’s ridiculously impressive resume: three Cups, two Olympic gold medals, a World Cup championship, a world junior title, and multiple regular season and playoff MVP awards. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer before the age of 30.
The Penguins also were able to ride both their goalies to this Cup, with longtime vet Marc-Andre Fleury stepping in after Murray’s injury left him unable to start the playoffs. Fleury won 9 games for the Pens before stumbling in the semifinals against Ottawa, and then Murray was able to take over and win the final seven games. Murray passed the Cup to Fleury, who likely made his last appearance with the Pens (after 14 years in Pittsburgh) with the impending Vegas expansion draft next week. He waived his non-movement clause and is expected to be picked by the Golden Knights.
So now we look towards an interesting offseason, which kicks off next Wednesday with the expansion draft. Many teams will have to make big decisions, but the Penguins will have their core group returning. Too soon to think about a three-peat? Probably, but don’t rule it out.