Sweet victory: How the Penguins turned things around

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Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor and diehard Penguins fan Stephen Mapes looks back at the unlikely path Pittsburgh took to reach hockey’s highest pinnacle.

There’s nothing quite like the joy of seeing the team you’ve cheered, agonized over, and obsessively followed all year hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup aloft. After a season like this one, though, it feels even sweeter.

Looking back at the preseason predictions from Jay and myself, I can’t help but laugh at just how wrong I was about my Penguins going into the season. I was convinced that Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel were going to gel immediately and that our defense was going to be A-okay in its early season form.

Neither of those things came true, and by late 2015, I had began to think perhaps GM Jim Rutherford’s offseason magic had all been for naught, as we were hanging onto playoff dreams by a thread thanks mostly to goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and not much else. Crosby was quiet, Kessel wasn’t fitting in, and Mike Johnston’s defense-first strategy was failing to do much defensively.

Then, on December 12, the pieces began to fall into place. Johnston was fired, Mike Sullivan was ushered aboard, and the Pens began their climb through the Metro division, from 15-10-3 to 48-26-8. Sullivan brought with him a new commitment to speed and aggressive offense, a no-nonsense attitude that extended to even our star players, and, most importantly, his choice talent from Wilkes-Barre.

You can’t help but marvel at the apparent happenstance that lead to the playoff incarnation of the Penguins. First, there was the loss of Fleury to a concussion that gave the net to the young Matt Murray, one of the season’s feel good stories as the 21-year-old became one of the few rookies to lead a team all the way to hockey’s greatest accomplishment. I don’t know if I’d go so far to say Murray was the reason the Pens won. His side-to-side game was at times frustrating, his glove game still needs work, and the swarming Pens defense and heavy shot blocking kept his save totals modest.

But Murray brought with him a resiliency that steadied the team, bouncing back from his few bad games to clock in strong performances. In fact, Murray ended the playoffs having never lost back-to-back games and posting a sub 1.72 GAA after losses.

The real “fate” moment of the season, however, was the loss of Evgeni Malkin late in the season, which birthed the legendary HBK line as Kessel, who struggled all season to find chemistry on the Pens, found his home with the lightning fast Carl Hagelin and the gritty, playmaking Nick Bonino. Whereas I do believe the Pens may have seen similar success behind a healthy Fleury, I can say with confidence that without HBK, the Pens don’t make it past the second round.

Their existence gave the Pens a top 9, bottom 3 offense that simply wore down opposing defenses through sheer attrition. No longer could opponents commit their best D-men to the Crosby/Malkin threats. Now typically sheltered second- and third-pairing defenses were seeing a fast, end-to-end offense that would feel right at home on the first line of many other teams. That speed and depth became apparent as each series wore on, as the Pens dominated shot totals and spent long stretches camped in the offensive zone.

But my final kudos have to go our ragtag defense, which I grew to lovingly refer to as “Letang’s Island of Misfit D-men.” Here was a squad that found solid play from castoffs like Justin Schultz and Ian Cole, that swarmed and cleared pucks with such tenacity that typical big stars like Ovechkin, Thornton, and Pavelski all but disappeared, and who blocked so many shots that Murray rarely had to show his mettle. While the defense may have lacked big names and big bodies, it covered its shortcomings with raw speed. Letang was the leader throughout, putting up massive minutes and finding the scoresheet when needed. While most people were splitting the Conn Smythe debate between Crosby, Kessel and Murray, Letang was building his own silent case.

In the end, Crosby did earn the coveted MVP award, thanks to his leadership, playmaking, and efforts to wear down the top lines of each opponent faced. But the fact that there was such debate at all — that at least four players seemed equally deserving — speaks to why the Pens were able to outlast talent teams like the Caps and the Sharks. This was a team effort, the most balanced Pens squad I have ever seen, and the proudest I’ve been as a Penguins fan.

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