Captain Sidney Crosby #87 and Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins kiss the Stanley Cup after Game Six of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Penguins defeated the Predators 2-0. The Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators 4-2. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
It is still, a few days later, somewhat hard to believe. Hard to believe that the Penguins are back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions. The salary cap era, after all, was supposed to make that difficult, if not impossible.
Yet here we are, with a parade planned for Wednesday morning, rain or shine. At least metaphorically, the sun has never shined brighter on the Pittsburgh Penguins than at this moment.
There are plenty of factors contributing to this pleasant reality. There is the sublime goaltending of both Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray. There is the stunning emergence of Jake Guentzel, goal-scoring machine. There is the steady reliability of Phil Kessel, still occasionally put upon by those in search of a convenient, easy narrative despite his 45 points in 49 playoff games with the Pens.
There was the grit and guts of a depleted blue line, a collection of players without a single Norris Trophy vote — ever — one that, for lack of a better term, found a way to do its job well enough, and sometimes superbly. There was production from role players, the kind that is essential to any successful Stanley Cup chase. Finally, there was Mike Sullivan, now inarguably the greatest coach in Penguins history, pushing all the right buttons at exactly the right times, for the second straight year.
That’s about all of it, right? Am I forgetting anyone?
Ah yes, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Two guys whose contributions aren’t taken for granted, per se, but are somehow still under-discussed. Make no mistake, this run is their crowning achievement. Crosby may have won the Conn Smythe, but both players had a legitimate case for it, and both men could not have propelled this team to these stratospheric heights without the other.
Crosby has elevated himself into the top-five players of all-time discussion with this title and performance, and Malkin is not far behind despite his unconscionable omission from the NHL’s 100 greatest players list released earlier this season.
Crosby has become, now more clearly than ever, the rare talent capable of imposing his will on the game every time he hops over the boards. He has, on more than one occasion, been the best player in the game without registering a point. When he’s on the ice two things seem safe assumptions: that the Penguins will have at least one good scoring chance and they will not allow the opposition much time in the attacking zone.
Malkin’s impact is at times not as obvious. He occasionally has a string of average to bad shifts, and even the stray bad overall game. Still, when at his absolute peak, he is the most physically imposing, dominant offensive force in the league. He’s not Crosby, but he’s very, very close. And when he’s most motivated, he’s capable of playing excellent defensive hockey, as he did on many occasions during this run. All you need to know about Malkin: Despite the first sentence of this paragraph being true, he led the league in playoff points this year.
The Penguins surmounted long odds to get back-to-back titles. They survived the loss of Kris Letang, arguably their most irreplaceable player, as well as a brutal draw, beating the fourth-best and best teams in the league, by record at least, in the first two rounds.
They fought fatigue, injury, valiant opposition and the weight of history, and came out on the other side as winners. The main reason the Penguins were able to do this is simple, even if sometimes taken for granted or ignored in favor of other, less common narratives: They have Crosby and Malkin and everyone else does not. The photographs of the two superstars holding the Cup, sharing it equally, could not have been more apropos.
This run, this incredible display of performance and perseverance, was Crosby and Malkin’s magnum opus. It was better than 2009’s arrival as elites, better than last year’s dominant return to glory. It placed them above Lemieux and Jagr’s Penguins of the early 1990s by the simplest, most important measure: Stanley Cups. It was the pinnacle of their respective careers.
For now, that is. Would you bet against Crosby and Malkin next season?
I know I wouldn't.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of 'The Starkey & Mueller Show" from 2-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 The Fan.