Wednesday, May 11, 2016

These Penguins truly are Cup contenders

May 11, 2016

Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2016:05:10 23:16:09
Pittsburgh Penguins' Nick Bonino, facing camera at top, is mobbed by teammates after scoring against the Washington Capitals during overtime of Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinals, Tuesday, May 10, 2016 in Pittsburgh. The Penguins won 4-3 to advance to the next round. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Before they could continue, the Penguins had to collapse.
They had to blow another 3-1 lead, had to see their season slipping away.
How else were they going to convince everybody, perhaps even themselves, that this year is going to be different?
Of course, some things never change. And as it always seems to go in the Stanley Cup playoffs, a great day for hockey in Pittsburgh was a lousy night for the Washington Capitals.
Penguins 4, Capitals 3 ... and that is how the showcase series of these Stanley Cup playoffs wrapped.
It was a Nick Bonino overtime goal set up by Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel.
It's the Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference final.
Take a bow, Jim Rutherford. You've rebuilt the Penguins into a Stanley Cup contender.
It seemed improbable. Even a few months ago, when the roster you had tinkered with since last summer snapped into a surge after months of meandering, your Penguins seemed set for another disappointing spring.
They were fast but lacked size. They were tough but lacked physicality.
They were fun to watch, but since when did aesthetically pleasing hockey clubs win when the hockey games started resembling UFC matches?
Plus, center Evgeni Malkin had a bum elbow. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had another concussion. And along with those two franchise cornerstone players, captain Sidney Crosby and top defenseman Kris Letang had a recent history of melting down in the most inopportune moments.
It wasn't about wondering whether the Penguins could win in the playoffs.
It was about knowing how they would lose. Their best players wouldn't be their best players when it mattered.
And it happened again Tuesday night.
Neither Crosby nor Malkin contributed a point. Letang was called for a late penalty. Fleury didn't even play.
Still, the Penguins were up 3-1 entering the third period, and Game 6 at Consol Energy Centerwas a lock. They hadn't lost when leading after two periods the entire season. That ability to hold leads over the final 20 minutes was pretty much the only thing they had consistently done all season.
The Penguins had struggled to score early in the regular season. Their struggle made wins hard to come by, led to Mike Sullivan replacing Mike Johnston as coach, and a handful of trades by Rutherford.
AHL players became NHL regulars.
Crosby became the world's best player again.
Scoring increased. Winning followed. A stale franchise seemed to become revitalized.
But any optimism had to be tempered. Though the NHL's hottest club entering the playoffs, the postseason format promised a second-round showdown with the Capitals, who were built for “playoff hockey.”
The Capitals had size and depth and a deadly power play and arguably the NHL's best goalie in Braden Holtby, in Alex Ovechkin inarguably hockey's most dangerous goal-scorer since when Mario Lemieux had a healthy back.
The Capitals were going to be too good.
The Penguins, despite playing well, were going to run into the one opponent they probably couldn't beat. So their possible remarkable transformation from woeful to world class was going to go the way of their previous six postseasons.
It was going to be a disappointment.
And as puck after puck after puck was sent over the glass and into the crowd in the third period Tuesday night, disappointment was palpable among a sellout crowd
The Capitals converted twice on what felt like an endless number of power plays to pull even 3-3 and force overtime.
Another collapse.
No different than when the Penguins' unraveled against the Flyers in 2012. Same as when they shrunk against the Bruins in 2013. Familiar with the 3-1 series lead they couldn't hold against the Rangers in 2014.
But Bonino scored in the final hour of Tuesday night. Hagelin and Kessel set him up.
Those three guys weren't Penguins a year ago. Matt Murray, a rookie, was a top goalie prospect in the AHL.
Olli Maatta was injured.
A lot is different about the Penguins.
They're a team, a great one.
They're the team that just beat the NHL's best team. And the Penguins did it without much production from Crosby and Malkin, without a start by Fleury, and even by winning a game when Letang was suspended.
This year is different.
Rob Rossi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter@RobRossi_Trib.

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