In year of playoff surprises, Pittsburgh’s march to the Cup was biggest of all

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Going into the Stanley Cup Final series between Pittsburgh and San Jose, most observers (including me and my colleague Phil) felt that the Sharks were simply the better team and would prevail. Nope. Not even close.

On the surface of it, the six-game final appeared fairly close, with three one-goal games (two of which were decided by overtime) and three two-goal decisions. But after Pittsburgh closed out the series last night with a 3-1 victory in the Shark Tank, it was obvious that Mike Sullivan’s charges were consistently the superior club throughout.

How did they do it? Speed. Tenacity. Opportunism. The Pens came up big whenever they needed to, and when they didn’t, it was Sharks goalie Martin Jones who prevented the series from being a sweep. Led by captain (and playoff MVP) Sidney Crosby, the Penguins never let up the entire series. Their team speed had the Sharks consistently on their heels, defending against the onslaught of the likes of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin (who got better as the series wore on), Phil Kessel, Conor Sheary, et al. Defensively, the Pens blocked so many shots and gave the offensively gifted Sharks little time to set up, and when shots did get through, Matt Murray made big saves. The line of Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin continued to bring the heat as they did throughout the playoffs, but it was the depth of the lineup that shone through for Pittsburgh. Everyone was dangerous. When it wasn’t one of the top offensive players delivering, it was a guy like Eric Fehr.

San Jose never quit, and had they been able to take advantage of their chances, we could be talking about getting ready for game 7 in Pittsburgh Wednesday night. The Sharks’ big threats—Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau—were never able to get rolling against the Pens’ defense led by Kris Letang. It was the team defensive approach—something we’ve never really seen from Pittsburgh before—that made the difference. Even the loss of Trevor Daley in the previous round didn’t affect the Pens D one iota.

Some may quibble at Crosby receiving the Conn Smythe award as playoff MVP; it could have gone to Murray or Kessel or even Letang. But there’s no disputing the leadership, the big plays and the selfless effort that the Artist Formerly Known as Sid the Kid displayed during the grueling four-round gladiator showdown that is the NHL playoffs. Once derided as supremely talented but a whiny crybaby, Crosby has remade himself as a gritty competitor who delivers in high-pressure situations. He was always a clutch performer, but leading this team to this most unexpected of Cups has elevated Crosby to another level of greatness. A lot of fans in opposing cities may not like it, but they can’t deny it.

Ultimately, the Penguins won four series in which they were considered the underdog. At midseason, the team was a shambles under coach Mike Johnston, who was fired in December. Sullivan, a longtime assistant who had a stint coaching Thornton and the Bruins a decade ago, was able to turn a troubled team around in a remarkable fashion. That he was able to do so with a rookie goalie and a patchwork defense is all the more impressive. There were plenty of other teams that appeared to have a better shot at winning the Cup: Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, Tampa, St. Louis, Anaheim, and yes, San Jose. They all fell by the wayside as Pittsburgh kept working hard and surprising opponents and observers alike. It was a championship well earned and no doubt for the Pens, it was immensely satisfying to prove all the naysayers wrong.

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