NASHVILLE, Tenn. – “Quite a night?” Trina Crosby said as she followed her son, Sidney, off the ice at Bridgestone Arena. “Quite a couple years!”
This was a Stanley Cup that came in twos. Back-to-back championships for the Pittsburgh Penguins. A Conn Smythe Trophy for Crosby in back-to-back years.
A team, and its icon, further etching their place in history together.
“In Sid’s case, I think now we can talk about him being in those top two, three, four guys of all-time,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said after Sunday’s tense 2-0 clinching victory over the Nashville Predators.
“He’s a special player. He’s a special person. … He’s in that group for me.”
Crosby finished with more points than anyone else in the final at seven. He also missed a game in the second round against Washington with a concussion, his second of the season. This was yet another year where he saw both ends of the spectrum and found a way through.
Any concerns about his health had washed away by the time he accepted the trophy from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and paraded it among family and friends.
“We’ve talked to him,” owner Mario Lemieux said of Crosby. “He’s pretty smart about all that stuff. So, yeah. It worked out all right.”
This is what drives him. He’s a “serial winner,” in the words of Mike Babcock. The kind of guy who wins one championship and starts thinking about two.
Now he’s got three in total and it won’t be long before he’s working towards No. 4.
“You can’t match this,” said Crosby. “This is what it’s all about, and to be able to share that with a group of guys, and a lot of them guys that you’ve played a long time with and understand how difficult it is and what you’ve had to go through and that kind of thing, to share it with family and friends, you know, it’s just …
“That’s what it’s about.”
They will be among the final names engraved on what is now the bottom band of the Stanley Cup – Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin – after lifting the trophy together for the third time as Penguins.
That total is matched only by the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL’s salary cap era.
There was a symbolic undercurrent to Pittsburgh’s six-game series win over the Predators. The league appears to be on the cusp of a power shift – with young stars in Edmonton, Toronto, Winnipeg and beyond – but the Penguins overcame both injury and the odds to win at least one more before the sea change.
The Cup itself will undergo a transformation after spending its second straight summer partying with the Pens. The 50 names that comprised the 2016-17 champions will complete the panel that began in 2004-05 – “season not played” – on the iconic silver trophy, meaning it is due to be moved up a level to make way for a clean slate.
Pittsburgh hopes to remain in the running for those coveted spots, but who knows? The core will get another year older. Free agency will leave holes to fill. Fleury is the longest-tenured man in the organization and almost certain to become an expansion draft casualty.
“At the start it was rough,” said Fleury, drafted No. 1 overall in this very building back in 2003. “We definitely weren’t winning like we wanted. Guys kept coming along, and we got better, and we went to the final in ’08 then we won in ’09. Then you think: ‘Wow, we’re going to do this a lot.’
“It was this time in between that was tough. It was frustrating to not bring another championship. I think we learned from that.”
They held their nerve while seemingly playing against an entire city in Game 6. Yes, Pittsburgh benefitted from a Colton Sissions goal that was called back because referee Kevin Pollock was out of position and blew the play dead. But it also had to kill four penalties without getting a power play.
Patric Hornqvist – the last overall pick by Nashville the year Crosby went No. 1 – scored a goal he’ll never forget. He brushed through the crease of former roommate Pekka Rinne and banked a shot in off the Predators goaltender with 1:35 to play.
“I think I jumped through the roof when he scored,” said teammate Jake Guentzel, who finished with 13 goals in the playoffs.
“This is where I played most of my games,” said Hornqvist. “To win it here. To score that goal. It couldn’t end any better for me.”
Pittsburgh is the first team to go back-to-back since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings and took a much different path to this championship than the last one. It needed strong play from two goalies – Fleury and Matt Murray, who posted consecutive shutouts to close out the Predators – and survived despite being routinely outshot and icing a makeshift blue-line in the absence of Kris Letang.
Whereas last year’s team broke opponents with unmatched scoring depth, this one was top heavy. Malkin, Crosby, Phil Kessel and Guentzel, the unheralded rookie, did the bulk of the damage.
“To be able to win it back-to-back, it’s something special,” said Lemieux. “It’s something that these guys and all of us in the organization can cherish for the rest of our lives. It’s unbelievable.”
The forthcoming change of the Stanley Cup ring is a reminder that time stops for no one. Gordie Howe, Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Bobby Hull are among the legends who will no longer have a spot on the Cup handed out each spring.
Pittsburgh, however, will be represented for two more generations. The organization has five Cups in all, tied with Edmonton for the most by a non-Original Six franchise.
“You have a small window to play and to have a career, and I feel fortunate,” said Crosby. “I also understand how difficult it is, so you just want to try to make the best of it.”
No matter what happens next, they will go down as a team for the ages.
Something truly special.