The Pens have it: Back to back Cups for Crosby and Co.

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.

Finally, the Cup Final: Preds vs. Penguins

Getting to the Stanley Cup Final is as much as an endurance test as it is a measure of skill. Sure, you’ve got to have an impressive collection of skill and perseverance to prevail over three opponents in seven-game series, but you also have to hope that you can get through the playoffs without losing too many of your key players. And when you do lose important parts of your club, you need others to step up and carry the load.

And for both teams in the Final, each part has come into play. The Predators have lost their top two centers to injury: leading scorer Ryan Johansen is out for the playoffs and Mike Fisher missed much of the third-round series vs. Anaheim, but should be back. The Penguins lost number one goalie Matt Murray and top defenseman Kris Letang to injury before the playoffs began, but Marc-Andre Fleury stepped in and did a great job until Murray returned against Ottawa in the conference final. Pittsburgh has also overcome injuries to Sid Crosby and Trevor Daley, among others, both of whom are healthy enough to play in the final. Nashville is rested and ready, having knocked off Anaheim in 6 games, while it took a full 7 games and two overtimes for Pittsburgh to take down the pesky Senators.

Ultimately, it’s going to be a classic battle of offense against defense. Pittsburgh has the top three scorers in the playoffs—Evgeni Malkin, Crosby and Phil Kessel—but Nashville has a powerful defense corps (featuring PK Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm) that is not only excellent defensively but contributes to the Preds’ offense in a big way. Pittsburgh struggled at times against Ottawa’s smothering trap defense, but their challenge will be much different against the Preds, who send their defensemen into the rush to join the offense. Nashville can play a bruising game as well, having battled the Ducks and their big forwards in the last series. Their offense, which is led by the dangerous Filip Forsberg, also has received contributions from Viktor Arvidsson and minor-league callups Colton Sissons, Austin Watson and Pontus Aberg.

In the net, Pittsburgh has received good goaltending from Murray and Fleury, but Nashville’s Pekka Rinne has been the best goalie of the playoffs so far. After many years of postseason disappointment, Rinne seems locked in. He will be tested by the Pens’ big three and other threats like Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust.

Both teams have steady, smart coaches who have each won a Cup. Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan obviously won last year with the Pens and has more experience in the NHL as an assistant than a head coach, but don’t underestimate what he’s done mixing and matching his pieces throughout tough Eastern Conference battles against Columbus, Washington and Ottawa. Peter Laviolette won the Cup with Carolina in 2006 and has been the Cup final with Philadelphia as well. He’s also done well to incorporate younger players in key roles when regulars have gone down.

It’s going to be a fun, interesting series between two of the best teams in the NHL throughout the season, which is what you hope for. In the end, the Predators are too deep and strong and will bring Smashville its first Stanley Cup.

Nashville in 6.

Four left standing: Welcome to the conference finals

The NHL’s long playoff slog rolls on, with four teams left in the running for Lord Stanley’s Cup. The second round was hotly contested, with two series going six games and two going the full seven. Washington fell down 3-1 early against Pittsburgh, and even though they were able to rally to extend the series, the Caps were unable to beat the resurgent Marc-Andre Fleury in game 7 and fell 2-0. Meanwhile, the underdog Senators rode the dominant play of Erik Karlsson and the timely goaltending of Craig Anderson to knock off the Rangers in six. The Predators continued to pick up steam and eliminated St. Louis in six, while Anaheim held off the upstart Oilers in a seesaw series that went the distance.

So where does that leave us in the Conference Finals, which begin tonight?

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Ducks (1) vs. Predators (WC2)

I actually called the Western winners correctly in the last round, but I had the Ducks winning in six and Nashville in seven. Unlike the Capitals, the Ducks were able to get a major playoff monkey off their back by finally winning a game 7 at home after losing seventh-game showdowns in each of the last four seasons. It didn’t look like it would happen after the Oilers blew them out in game six, 7-1, but Anaheim was able to focus and get the job done. However, the Preds are playing lights out hockey right now with Pekka Rinne continuing his outstanding work in net, a terrific defense corps and clutch offense. Nashville’s going to the finals this year.

Nashville in 6.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Senators (2) vs. Penguins (2)

Nobody, except probably the Sens themselves, thought Ottawa would get this far. But their defense-first style is built for the playoffs and they’ve had a knack for squeaking out victories: seven of their eight playoff wins have been by one goal. Karlsson has been immense for the Sens, putting himself in the early Conn Smythe considerations as he leads Ottawa at both ends of the ice while playing with two hairline fractures in his left heel. Pittsburgh overcame the concussion(s) suffered by Sidney Crosby (who returned) and injuries to Kris Letang (out for the postseason) and last year’s Cup-winning goalie Matt Murray to play just well enough to beat a stacked Capitals squad. Evgeni Malkin has stepped up and is leading the playoffs with 18 points, but there are plenty of weapons including Jake Guentzel and Phil Kessel to provide offense. And Fleury has been terrific, looking like the goalie who played so well for several years before settling into the backup role last year. Ottawa has battled hard, but they can’t match the Penguins.

Pittsburgh in 6.

Over and overtime: A grueling first round wraps up

Even though none of the first-round NHL playoff series went the distance, fans got their money’s worth and then some. There were a record 18 games that went to overtime, with both the Caps-Leafs and Sens-Bruins series wrapping up Round 1 fittingly on Sunday with OT decisions.

In the end, there were shocking upsets, shocking near-upsets and even a few expected results. In the East, #8 Toronto gave top-seeded Washington all it could handle and something more in a series that featured six one-goal games (five of them going to OT). The Bruins and Senators similarly waged a dogged battle, but in the end, the injury-ravaged Boston was too depleted to send the series to a seventh game. The Rangers defeated Montreal in another tight six-game series, with Henrik Lundqvist outdueling Carey Price in a contest between two of the best goalies of our time. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, made short work of Columbus in five.

The West featured more decisive results, the most surprising of which was Nashville’s sweep of the Blackhawks. Anaheim also swept their series, taking out Calgary in four close contests, while St. Louis and a red-hot Jake Allen took out Minnesota in five. The Edmonton-San Jose series was the closest, at one point tied 2-2 after a 7-0 Sharks victory in game 4. But the Oilers bounced and took the next two to advance to the second round.

Round 2 kicks off Wednesday night with the Western conference action. Here are my picks for the second round (I went 4-4 in the first round, correctly picking Washington, Pittsburgh, Anaheim and Edmonton):

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Blues (3) vs. Predators (WC2)

This will be a battle of hot goalies, with Allen and Pekka Rinne coming off dominating performances in the first round. Both teams are playing extremely well, having dispatched teams in the previous round that many pundits thought would take them out. The Preds, who underperformed during the regular season, are heating up at the right time and will outlast the Blues.

Predators in 7.

 

Ducks (1) vs. Oilers (2)

This should be a fun series, with the veteran Ducks taking on the high-flying Oilers. Edmonton’s got speed to burn and will make things difficult for Anaheim, but the Ducks’ overall depth (bolstered by a returning Cam Fowler) will give them the edge.

Ducks in 6.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Senators (2) vs. Rangers (WC1)

May be the one dud of a series as the defense-minded Sens try to lull the speedy Rangers to sleep. With home ice advantage, Ottawa hopes to keep games close and win some squeakers. But King Henrik and a balanced attack will leave the Sens overmatched despite having the best player on the ice in Erik Karlsson, who was dominant against the Bruins.

Rangers in 6.

 

Capitals (1) vs. Penguins (2)

Here’s the series everyone’s excited for: Ovie vs. Sid, 1 vs. 2, and two teams that don’t like each other and have battled often over the last several years. Pittsburgh has come out on top in eight of their nine playoff meetings, but this year will be different. The defending Cup champ Penguins have the same offense they had last spring, but they’re missing their number one goalie Matt Murray and top d-man Kris Letang. The Caps have four good lines, a solid defense corps and Vezina finalist Braden Holtby, who struggled a bit against Toronto but played well by the end of the series. Their scare against the Leafs will serve as a wakeup call for Washington. It’s just a shame this series is taking place in the second round instead of the conference finals.

Capitals in 7.

 

Here’s Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey’s round 2 picks:

Washington over Pittsburgh in 6: Capitals ride momentum of first round triumph over Leafs to get past defending champs.

 

New York over Ottawa in 5: Karlsson and Anderson might combine to steal a game, but this series should be a formality for the Broadway Boys.

 

Anaheim over Edmonton in 7: Should be the best of the four semifinal series’; fast, frantic and a fight to the finish. Game 7 could go OT.

 

Nashville over St. Louis in 6: Preds may have more confidence than any other team right now and use that to fight off the Blues.

 

Of Easter Eve and multiple overtimes

Watching last night’s epic Leafs-Caps double OT classic took me back 30 years to April 18-19, 1987, when the Capitals and Islanders engaged in what became known as the Easter Epic.

I was home from college for the weekend and preparing to make one of my semi-annual appearances in church the following morning. My dad, my brother and I settled in to watch game 7 of the Patrick Division semifinals (aka the first round of the playoffs) at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. The Isles were a few years past their early ’80s run of Stanley Cup dominance, but they still had some of their stars from those teams, including Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, who were the top two scorers that season. The Caps were a team on the rise after several years of bottom-dwelling, and they had taken a 3-1 lead in the series. The Isles bounced back to tie the series and send it to a decisive seventh game.

The game was broadcast on ESPN with Mike Emrick and Bill Clement handling the announcing duties; all the other series had already been decided. The Capitals were winning 2-1 until Trottier tied it up with five minutes left in regulation and it went to OT. Goalies Bob Mason for the Caps and Kelly Hrudey were outstanding throughout, but especially as the OT periods wore on. The Capitals had a sizable edge in shots, but weren’t able to dent the twine after regulation.

The game started at 7:30 p.m. and rolled on into Easter Sunday. I realized that I needed to get up at 6 a.m., but I wasn’t about to go to bed without seeing how the game ended. Pretty sure my brother bailed at some point, but my dad and I stuck it out. Things were getting loopy as the game moved into the 4th overtime period, as Emrick and Clement were letting their freak flag fly.

Finally at 1:58 a.m., about eight minutes into the 4th OT, Pat Lafontaine spun at the Caps blueline and fired a slapper at the net that somehow found its way past a bunch of players and Mason to win the game and series for the Islanders. I had been rooting for the Capitals, partly because they hadn’t won anything yet and also because a guy from my dorm at UNH, Steve Leach, was now on the team.  But I was also kind of relieved the game was over and I could go to bed. In the end, Hrudey had stopped 73 of 75 shots and Mason made 54 saves. The Islanders moved on to face the Philadelphia Flyers in the next round; the Flyers won the series in seven games and made it all the way to the finals, where they would lose to Wayne Gretzky and Edmonton. I don’t really remember much about going to church later that morning, but I’m sure there was plenty of yawning involved.

The Caps, meanwhile, still haven’t won a Cup, but they played in an even longer game in 1996 vs. the Penguins, when game 4 of the conference finals went to the final minute of the 4th OT before Pittsburgh’s Petr Nedved fired in the winner. I watched that one, too, but by that point, I was living by myself and was able to sleep in the next day.

Thirty years after the Easter Epic, the Leafs and Caps battled in game 2 of their opening round series. It was again a family-centered evening as we went out to dinner with my mother and my brother and his wife, who were in town from Northern Ireland for the holiday. We missed the first period, saw the second and then missed most of the third on the drive home. It was a white-knuckle ride through the OT periods, finally ending in the second OT when Kasperi Kapanen of the Leafs fired home his second of the game for the winner. The game was over not long after 11:30 p.m., so it wasn’t quite an Easter Epic, but it was pretty damn close.

Cold As Ice Playoff Preview: Here We Go!

We’re back on the cusp of the greatest postseason tournament in sports: the NHL playoffs. Everything takes on an air of desperation in the playoffs, making just about every game full of excitement and drama. And it’s a grueling death march to the Stanley Cup, with four best-of-seven rounds required to get to the top of the mountain. Rarely do things play out the way I think they will, but just for chuckles, here are my first-round picks.

Eastern Conference

Washington (1) vs. Toronto (WC2)

The Capitals are a team loaded with weapons that should have won a Cup by now but hasn’t, despite several years of regular season excellence. Led by the great Alex Ovechkin, the Caps boast a potent offense, a solid defense and one of the best goalies in the game in Braden Holtby. After years of early playoff exits, anything short of a Cup is failure for this crew. Meanwhile, you’ve got the upstart Leafs, who featured six rookies in prominent roles including the power trio of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Already not the strongest club defensively, the Leafs saw two of their regular d-men (Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak) suffer injuries in the last game of the season and number 1 goalie Frederik Andersen fall victim to a head shot by Pens goon Tom Sestito in the game before. They’re going to need all three to make any headway against Washington, but more than likely, it won’t be enough.

Capitals in 5.

 

Pittsburgh (2) vs. Columbus (3)

These teams don’t like each other. The defending Cup champ Penguins got some bad news last week when their top defenseman Kris Letang was ruled out for the playoffs after undergoing neck surgery. But they’ve still got Crosby, Kessel and a deep selection of offensive weapons, not the least of which is Evgeni Malkin, who is expected to return to the lineup after almost a month. Trade deadline pickups Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit will pick up some of the slack for Letang, but it will take some strong goaltending from Matt Murray to help the Pens go deep into the playoffs. The Blue Jackets had their best season ever, finishing with 108 points, but they stumbled through to the end at a 1-6 clip. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has been a beast, but the Jackets will need big contributions from the likes of Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Brandon Saad and Nick Foligno to stand a chance at knocking off the Penguins. Look for John Tortorella’s squad to play a gritty, hard-hitting series to throw the Pens off their game. Pittsburgh has too much weaponry to be stopped, though.

Penguins in 6.

 

Montreal (1) vs. New York Rangers (WC1)

This is going to be a fun series. A true battle of great goalies: Henrik Lundqvist vs. Carey Price. There’s no love lost between the clubs, especially since NY’s Chris Kreider took out Price in the Eastern Conference finals three years ago. Neither team has much of an offensive attack, so look for a lot of low-scoring games and stud d-men Ryan McDonagh and Shea Weber to play major roles in the outcome. Ultimately, Price will come out on top again.

Canadiens in 7.

 

Ottawa (2) vs. Boston (3)

After canning Claude Julien in February, the Bruins turned their season around under assistant Bruce Cassidy. The new coach freed up his offense and the club was re-energized, led by pest-turned-elite-scorer Brad Marchand. The B’s will be put to the test by the trap-happy Senators, who can effectively put both opponents and fans to sleep with their defense-first style. Breaking out of the Ottawa malaise will be crucial if Boston hopes to advance. It won’t be easy, but they’ll do it.

Bruins in 7.

 

Western Conference

Chicago (1) vs. Nashville (WC2)

The Blackhawks are stacked with talent as always and even though they stumbled down the stretch, they still have to be considered one of the favorites to win the Cup. Kane, Toews, Keith and co. will do battle with a dangerous Predators team that’s built to succeed in the postseason. PK Subban had an underwhelming regular season, but all that will be forgotten if he can lead the Preds past the Hawks. It will be tough, but the Hawks will move on.

Blackhawks in 6.

 

Minnesota (2) vs. St. Louis (3)

The focus in this series will be on the coaches as much as the players. First-year Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has famously had strong teams in Washington and Anaheim that flamed out early. Meanwhile, Mike Yeo of St. Louis, who took over midseason from Ken Hitchcock, will be facing his old team. The Wild have a strong all-around team that took a big leap forward this year; the Blues are solid as always, but they won’t have enough to advance.

Wild in 6.

Anaheim (1) vs. Calgary (WC1)

There’s some bad blood between these teams after Calgary captain Mark Giordano took out Ducks d-man Cam Fowler with a knee-on-knee hit last week. The Flames have some strong young talent led by Johnny Gaudreau, but even without Fowler, the Ducks are too much to handle.

Ducks in 5.

 

Edmonton (2) vs. San Jose (3)

This series will essentially be the Young Guns vs. the Old Farts. In his second year, Connor McDavid took his place as the most electrifying player in the NHL, leading the league in scoring and taking over games with his blazing speed and ability. Cam Talbot solidified the Oilers with a 42-win season in goal and veteran pickups like Milan Lucic provided the jam the team had lacked. Meanwhile, the Sharks are ailing, with Joe Thornton and Logan Couture both missing time at the end of the season with injuries. Brent Burns had a monster year and the team still has offensive support from Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau, but it’s time for Edmonton’s kids to shine.

Oilers in 6.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Washington over Montreal in 6.

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Chicago over Anaheim in 6.

STANLEY CUP: Washington over Chicago in 7.

CONN SMYTHE WINNER: Ovechkin

 

And while we’re at it, here are Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey’s picks to click in the postseason:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Bruins over Senators in 7: Pastrnak and Marchand come up with key goals as B’s win three games in OT for series win.

Capitals over Maple Leafs in 5: It’s now or never for the best team Alexander Ovechkin has ever played with in the NHL.

Rangers over Canadiens in 5: Henrik Lundqvist outplays Carey Price; Rangers’ physicality is a difference maker, too.

Penguins over Blue Jackets in 5: Injuries aside, the Penguins are built for playoff hockey and will prove it in this round.

EAST FINALCapitals over Rangers in 6

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Blackhawks over Predators in 6: I can see Nashville splitting the first four games before the Hawks take charge for good.

Wild over Blues in 4: Minnesota heads into the posteason with a head full of steam…and St. Louis doesn’t have the teeth to respond.

Sharks over Oilers in 7: Jumbo Joe, Patty Marleau & Co. have one last run in them, enough to hold off these young whippersnappers.

Ducks over Flames in 6: Anaheim will not only be battling Calgary, but the stigma that they too often fall flat in the playoffs.

WEST FINALWild over Ducks in 6

STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS: Wild over Capitals in 6

Conn Smythe Trophy winner: Zach Parise, Wild

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.

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.

Cold As Ice Stanley Cup Final Preview, Part Deux: Feel The Burns

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey weighs in with his preview of the Cup final.

I’ve been watching the National Hockey League for almost 40 years now, and never can I recall a postseason as unpredictable as this.

I’ve picked more losers during these playoffs than Eddie Mush did at the racetrack in “A Bronx Tale.” I had both the Sharks and Penguins losing in the first round. Ironically, I’ve bet against the Pittsburgh Penguins in each of the first three rounds, and each time been proven wrong by the Sons of Mario Lemieux.

Unfortunately for the Penguins and their fans, I think their streak of remarkable playoff fortune is about to come to an end.

You don’t reach the Stanley Cup final on pure luck, of course. A multitude of events have to sync properly in your favor, including timely scoring, huge saves at key moments, and role players stepping forward to assume the role of hero for a shift, a period, a game or even an entire series. Having said that, I don’t think those confluence of circumstances will continue for the Steel City Boys against a Sharks team that—pardon the pun—hungers for its first ever championship.

I’m picking San Jose to sip from hockey’s holy chalice in six games—although a shorter series would not surprise me. Here are the primary reasons I believe the state of California will claim top honors in the NHL for the fourth time in a decade:

  • It’s the biggest advantage the Sharks hold over the Penguins, and it’s not even close. Brent Burns might win the Conn Smythe Award on his presence alone; the burly, bushy blueliner can do everything from muscle foes from the front of his crease to jump start the offense, be it 5-on-5 or with the man advantage. He’s a different maker literally every shift he takes. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Roman Polak, Paul Martin and Justin Braun all bring a level of effectiveness and shutdown capabilities. Pittsburgh is less mobile, prone to making mistakes in their own end and, after a season-ending injury to Trevor Daley in the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay, much thinner. Kris Letang is going to be asked to play big minutes—like 30 minutes a night—and San Jose’s big boys will wear him down over the course of this series.
  • Speed. Both teams have oodles of it, but the Sharks go from zero to 60 just a stride or two faster. Burners like Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and fourth liner Joonas Donskoi, among others, are attacking forwards with nonstop motors. The Penguins don’t exactly employ a fleet of Yugos, not with Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Letang in the lineup, but the Sharks are better from 1-to-18.
  • The road to riches. Consider who both squads defeated to reach this point. San Jose ripped through the favored Los Angeles Kings, the plucky Nashville Predators and an excellent (but forever snakebitten) St. Louis Blues club. All three were excellent defensively until the Sharks tore through them with relative ease. The Penguins, in reaching the peak of the much more inferior Eastern Conference, they defeated a slow New York Rangers team that showed the fatigue of long playoff runs the previous two seasons; a Washington Capitals club that once again choked under the weight of postseason expectations; and a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that fizzled in Games 6 and 7. Advantage, Sharks.
  • Midnight strikes for Matt Murray. It’s been one of the best stories of this year’s postseason: Matt Murray riding to the rescue and backstopping the Penguins to win after win, series after series in these playoffs. He’s been fun to watch in goal … but in the Cup final, he’ll go back to being a pumpkin. Martin Jones, the far more reliable and technically sound of the two, gets his name etched on the Cup for San Jose.

I’m no Sidney Crosby hater—far from it. I love his game, his net drive, his willingness to do anything it takes to get a win. But his ’stache? Terrible. How do you not go with the Grizzly Adams look of Thornton, Burns & Co.?

I’m looking forward to Pavelski being handed the Cup, then turning it over to the first two picks of the 1997 Draft—Joe Thornton, then Patrick Marleau—as they happily lift the lightest 35 pound silver mug of their lives.

 

Stanley Cup Final preview: It’s Shark season

Well, it’s been nearly eight months since the 2015-16 NHL season kicked off and we’re finally ready to decide the winner of the Stanley Cup. It has been an interesting playoff season so far, with a lot of the predicted favorites getting bumped off: Washington, Chicago, LA, Anaheim. The conference finals were excellent matchups, but ultimately it was the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks triumphing with similar styles: Speed, offensive flair, a dash of grit, deep rosters and just enough goaltending to get the job done.

It’s nice that teams with uptempo styles are on the biggest stage; as much I like the Blues, Ken Hitchcock-run teams tend to play a stifling defensive style that can be as exciting as watching paint dry. This series is going to be all about speed, forechecking and special teams.

Great storylines abound:

  • Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau finally getting to the fourth round after years of frustration.
  • Sidney Crosby and company back in the finals after winning the Cup in 2009 and then falling short the last six years.
  • perennially underappreciated Phil Kessel sticking it to the critics and fans in his former cities by leading the Pens in playoff scoring.
  • Pittsburgh getting huge contributions from the likes of Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Nick Bonino et al.
  • Would you have predicted back in October that the starting goalies in the Cup finals would be Matt Murray and Martin Jones? No, you would not have.

Both teams run four effective lines. Offensively, the Sharks have a red-hot Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture (who’s quietly leading the postseason in scoring), Brent Burns and key contributions from Joel Ward, Joonas Donskoi, Tomas Hertl and Chris Tierney. On the defensive end, Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Paul Martin lead a tough D squad that shut down opposing stars like Vladimir Tarasenko, Filip Forsberg and Tyler Toffoli in previous series. Jones has been solid in goal throughout.

The Pens have marquee names like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but it has been the line of Kessel teaming up with Carl Hagelin and Bonino that has carried the offensive load. Throw in veterans Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist and Matt Cullen along with the upstarts Rust and Sheary and you’ve got a team that has surprised everyone with its depth and two-way play. The Pens will miss Trevor Daley, who excelled on defense before breaking his ankle in the last round. The heat is on stud d-man Kris Letang, young Olli Maata, Brian Dumoulin and Ben Lovejoy to hold off the waves of offensive the Sharks will throw at them. Matt Murray is the starter despite being yanked in favor of longtime #1 Marc-Andre Fleury in the third period of game 4 and for all of game 5 vs. Tampa. If he falters, coach Mike Sullivan will likely have a quick hook.

Most critics are picking the Sharks, but Pittsburgh has been exceeding expectations all postseason. I’m also going with San Jose, but it’s not going to be easy. Crosby has been getting better as the playoffs wore on and reminding people why he’s still one of the best in the game. Ultimately, however, Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski and crew will get their names on the Cup and I for one will be happy to see it.

Sharks in 6.