SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Pittsburgh Penguins have come full circle to capture another Stanley Cup.
Exactly seven years to the day since their last Cup victory, the Penguins hoisted the game’s greatest prize for the fourth time, beating the San Jose Sharks 3-1 in Game 6 at SAP Center on Sunday night.
The Penguins had 12 different scorers in the final, although Conn Smythe Trophy winner and team captain Sidney Crosby never had a goal.
“I wasn’t really thinking about ’09 that much, I was just thinking about how hard it was to get to this point and just trying to enjoy every second of it,” said Crosby. “It’s not easy to get here and having won seven years ago at a young age you probably take it for granted a little bit. You don’t think you do at the time.”
Unheralded defenceman Brian Dumoulin opened the scoring in Game 6 on a power play, later joined on the scoresheet by Kris Letang, who scored the go-ahead goal and eventual game-winner.
Crosby had two assists in the Cup-clinching victory, including the set-up of Letang as well as Patric Hornqvist’s empty-netter.
Matt Murray, meanwhile, responded with a fine 18-save performance. The unexpected 22-year-old starter for the Penguins this spring matched the NHL record for wins in the post-season by a rookie goaltender (15), also improving to 6-0 in games that followed a loss.
Much like their last Stanley Cup win in 2009, when Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien, the Penguins morphed into a different team after a mid-season coaching change. Pittsburgh was suddenly playing faster, scoring more and controlling the puck more often after Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston in mid-December.
“I don’t think you could expect it,” said Pittsburgh defenceman Ian Cole on the ice after raising the Stanley Cup over his head. “When we were at that point in December or January, when we had hit maybe our low-point of the season, there was a lot of frustration built up, there was a lot of guys that were extremely frustrated with how they were playing, with how the team was playing.
“But I don’t think anyone ever doubted in this room that we had a very special team, a team that could go all the way.”
Crosby and Letang especially took off under Sullivan as did Phil Kessel, who soon became a feared creator of offence on the team’s third line and dominant post-season force. Sullivan’s intention upon his promotion was to play to the strengths of the team’s best players.
“Speed in all of its forms is what I envisioned with this group,” Sullivan said during the final.
The Penguins went 33-16-5 after Sullivan took over, while sitting near the top of the league in puck possession. And indeed, their speed was evident all throughout the Cup final, both in terms of how quickly they moved the puck and their feet.
Kessel, who led the Penguins in post-season scoring, was among the key additions made to the roster over the course of the last year, joined by Carl Hagelin (16 points in the playoffs), Nick Bonino (18 points), and Trevor Daley, among others.
“All those moves are important, they all add up and that’s certainly a big one,” Crosby said of the Kessel trade, which sent a package of prospects, picks and players to Toronto.
Contributions from young talent from inside the organization also reaped rewards with those like Murray, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust making notable impacts.
Murray looked more composed on Sunday after looking shaky in Game 5, just as Sullivan predicted he would before the decisive game.
“I think he believes in himself,” Sullivan said. “He knows he’s a good goalie.”
Murray showed it in stopping Sharks winger Matt Nieto as he raced down the left side and let rip from inside the face-off circle. He made another good stop on Joonas Donskoi, one of only four saves he was forced to make in the opening period.
He was helped greatly in one particular show of determination by long-time Penguins winger Chris Kunitz, who raced from out of nowhere to break up a Joel Ward breakaway. Kunitz dove to the ice and extended his stick just as Ward was winding up, the puck knocked away and the chance erased.
Kunitz is one of five current Penguins to also play for the Cup-winning team in 2009, joined by Letang, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, who served as Murray’s backup all spring.
Despite not scoring, Crosby was a force throughout the final, especially early in the series and then again in Game 6. The Penguins captain set up Letang for the 2-1 go-ahead goal, which came just over a minute after the Sharks evened the score at 1-1.
Crosby finished with four points (all assists) against the Sharks and 19 points in the playoffs.
Hired as the Penguins general manager in June 2014, Jim Rutherford engineered many of the moves that helped Pittsburgh back to the Cup, including undoing some of his own mistakes such as the Johnston hiring.
Sullivan’s story in Pittsburgh reads much like Bylsma seven years ago. Now the Buffalo Sabres head coach, Bylsma was coaching the Penguins AHL affiliate when he replaced Therrien behind the NHL bench. He, too, posted a sterling mark (18-3-4) as the Penguins scored in droves, before eventually guiding the Penguins to their third Stanley Cup.
Sullivan’s Penguins trailed in only one game of the final, outshooting the Sharks 206-139 while controlling play often enough with devastating speed and depth.
The Penguins have clinched all four of their Cups, including this one, on the road.