Goaltender Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is congratulated by teammate Sidney Crosby #87 after their 6-0 victory over the Nashville Predators in Game Five of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at PPG Paints Arena on June 8, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennslyvannia. The Penguins lead the series 3-2. (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)
Back in April, before the Stanley Cup playoffs started, two current National Hockey League players told me each believed the Pittsburgh Penguins were the best team in the tournament, but likely would not win the title.
The defending Cup champions looked worn down, were suffering from too many injuries and would not hold up over another grueling two months of hockey was the reasoning of both players.
Halfway through the playoffs, a former league executive lamented, "the best team is not going to win the Cup this year... the Penguins are simply running on fumes and won't be able to finish it off."
Yet somehow, despite those prognostications and obstacles, the Penguins are one win away from their second straight Stanley Cup championship, what would be the third of the Sidney Crosby era.
"I think it says a lot about the people we have... they have a real appetite to win," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan told reporters Friday morning, mere hours after Pittsburgh's convincing 6-0 victory over the Nashville Predators in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
After winning it all last June, the team had a short summer to recover physically. Then six of its best players -- Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Matt Murray, Patric Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin, and Olli Maatta -- ramped things up early, and missed most of training camp, by participating in the World Cup of Hockey. The 82-game Battle Royale of a regular season in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division followed, with assorted injuries taking a toll along the way.
The Penguins grinded their way to 50 wins, 111 points and the second-best record in the NHL, despite incredible wear and tear on their minds and bodies.
"It's been an exhausting season, maybe even more so mentally than physically," Penguins forward Carl Hagelin admitted to Sporting News late in the year.
Before the first puck even dropped on the postseason, Pittsburgh learned it would be without star defenseman Kris Letang until next season because of a herniated disc in his neck. A lower body injury suffered by Murray in warmups ahead of the playoff opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets was another ominous sign that back-to-back titles might not be attainable.
However, the Penguins beat the Blue Jackets that night with Marc-Andre Fleury subbing for Murray in goal. They reeled off 14 more victories since -- Fleury backstopping nine of those before Murray returned to the starter's role during the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators.
Others have stepped in and out of the lineup, too, because of injuries along the way suffered by key contributors like Hornqvist, Hagelin, Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley and Tom Kuhnackl. Even Crosby, who leads all players with 19 postseason assists this spring, missed a game due to a concussion.
"With all the adversity this team has faced over the course of this season, what jumps out to me is just the character of the people that we have in our dressing room," stated Sullivan.
A pair of Game 7 wins highlighted this run. The first came in the second round and on the road against the President's Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, the next a double-overtime epic in the conference final against the Senators.
Despite looking exhausted and overmatched at times in the Stanley Cup Final, the Penguins have persevered and made the big play time and again to grab a 3-2 series lead heading into Sunday's Game 6.
One more win and they become the first team to capture consecutive Cups since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings.
"I can't say enough for this group of players," said Sullivan. "I've said on a number of occasions they are a privilege to coach, and I sincerely mean that. They understand that we haven't accomplished anything to this point and that there's one more game that we have to go out and earn, and I believe that this group has the will and the character to do so."