Sunday, May 28, 2017
The Stanley Cup Favorite Penguins Aren’t Counting Their Chickens
By Chris Adamski
May 26, 2017
Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins talks with Phil Kessel #81 as he holds the Prince of Wales Trophy after winning Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 25, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Ottawa Senators with a score of 3 to 2. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — If reaching the Stanley Cup finals in consecutive years by the age of 21 left Sidney Crosby feeling naïve about the magnitude of the accomplishment, the eight-year wait before it happened again made it abundantly clear.
Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins became the first team to defend a conference championship since they and the Detroit Red Wings met in consecutive Cup finals in 2008 and 2009.
Next, the Penguins will try to become first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the Red Wings of 1997 and 1998. Pittsburgh hosts Game 1 of the finals against the Nashville Predators on Monday.
“You hear the talk about how difficult it is to get back to the finals two years in a row, and then you start to see it firsthand,” Crosby said after the Penguins’ 3-2 double-overtime victory against the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night.
“Number One, how hard it is to stay healthy and for things to go right, to get those plays constantly,” he said. “Every series, you look at how the margin for error is so slim.”
A bad bounce, a missed penalty call or a botched save over the final 30-plus minutes of play on Thursday, and Pittsburgh would have been packing up on Friday, reflecting on its season and looking ahead to 2017-18.
Instead, the Penguins are on the cusp of joining some elite company.
A series victory over Nashville would give Pittsburgh its fifth Stanley Cup, tying it with the Edmonton Oilers and the Chicago Blackhawks for fifth on the league list. The only teams to claim as many as five Stanley Cups since the Penguins entered the N.H.L. in 1967 are the Oilers (five) and the Montreal Canadiens (10).
Each of Pittsburgh’s championships has come since 1991, and no other team has claimed five Stanley Cups in that span. The Red Wings and the Penguins are the only N.H.L. teams to win six conference championships during the past three decades.
“We’ve got a group of veteran players,” Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan said, “and I think they have a certain perspective that they understand the opportunity to play this deep and compete for the Stanley Cup doesn’t come around every year. And when it does, when a team like ours puts itself in the position like we have, we have to maximize this opportunity.”
Crosby became the youngest captain to win a Stanley Cup in 2009, two months before his 22nd birthday. Also at stake during the next few weeks is a chance to join seven others who have captained a team to at least three Stanley Cups since the 1967 expansion that doubled the N.H.L.’s size.
Aside from Jonathan Toews, who is still active, each of the others (Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, Denis Potvin, Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman and Scott Stevens) is in the Hall of Fame.
While acutely aware of hockey history in private, Crosby is loath to publicly emphasize his personal place in it.
“You just think of it as a great opportunity,” Crosby said of this latest finals appearance. “This is what you work hard for all year, to give yourself a chance to play. And this situation is not something that happens very often.”
Pittsburgh can become the first team in the salary-cap era (since the 2004-05 lockout) to win consecutive titles.
Counting the regular season and the playoffs, the Penguins have played 207 games during the past 20 months. Early in the series against Ottawa, fatigue appeared to be setting in. But Pittsburgh finished the series strong, winning three of four and outshooting the Senators in each.
Las Vegas sports books have installed the Penguins as favorites against Nashville, which won just half its regular-season games and had the worst record of any playoff team.
Playing down the possible historical milestones, the Penguins said their motivation is more personal. Wing Carl Hagelin, for example, said that he had found inspiration on Thursday in his 40-year-old teammate, Matt Cullen.
“I remember sitting next to Cully on the bench and just thinking, ‘This is not the way he’s going to go out; we’re going to win this game,’” Hagelin said. “He deserves that.”
The second-oldest Penguins regular, Chris Kunitz, 37, is the only player in the finals who can earn his fourth championship ring. In his ninth season with Pittsburgh and in the final year of his contract, Kunitz said short-term relationships, not longevity, were driving him.
“You never know if you’re going to play on this ice again with this team, so you’ve got to make sure you make that last as long as you can,” said Kunitz, who scored two goals, including the game-winner, on Thursday. “It’s not a lot of fun thinking about the future when you want to be here and you want to be playing with your teammates.”
He added: “So I’m happy that it’s not over for us yet. We’ve got another challenge in front of us. And another chance to win another Cup.”