Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup Trophy after they defeated the Nashville Predators 2-0 to win the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Rarely is the Stanley Cup won back-to-back. The Penguins’ victory this year marked the first time since 1998, you may have heard.
But the Penguins won much differently this season than in 2016.
In ’16, the Penguins were clearly the best team. At times, their skill and speed overwhelmed. None of their series victories was remotely surprising. Even when the Penguins trailed Tampa Bay three games to two in the Eastern Conference final with Game 6 at Tampa, the situation seemed well in hand.
This year, the situation didn’t seem well in hand until Carl Hagelin’s empty-net goal with 14 seconds left this past Sunday at Nashville.
That’s not critical in any remote sense. The Penguins found a way.
Most pro sports leagues have a significant copycat element. But not the NHL. Not this season.
The Penguins’ playoff foes, perhaps because speed and (especially) skill are not readily available, instead chose the battering-ram approach. Even Washington, with a heaping helping of both commodities, tried to separate the Penguins from their heads instead of the puck.
It didn’t work. But it did change the Penguins’ approach.
Their breakout crippled by the unavailability of defenseman Kris Letang, the Penguins didn’t alter their style, not dramatically. But they relied a lot more on guile than dazzle, soaked up some discouraging losses and persevered to bleed out games (and series).
In the 2016 playoffs, the Penguins never lost a game by more than two.
In this year’s postseason, the Penguins absorbed several pastings: 5-2 in Game 6 at home vs. Washington; 5-1 in Game 3 at Ottawa; 5-1 and 4-1 in Games 3 and 4 at Nashville.
But the Penguins were never deterred.
In fact, captain Sidney Crosby says the Game 4 defeat at Nashville was when the Penguins really found their footing in that series.
The last game reflected the Penguins’ entire playoff: Fluky bank shot with 95 seconds left, ENG locks it up. They found a way.
Goaltender Matt Murray delivered mostly by rarely allowing soft goals. The defensive corps overachieved mightily, especially in the last two games. The stars didn’t fill the score sheet, but did what’s necessary.
Exhibit A: Two-time Stanley Cup champion Phil Kessel was oft-criticized for not scoring enough, not shooting enough, etc. But Kessel still had 23 points in 25 playoff games and was a team-best plus-12.
You can win quietly. Save the fanfare for the celebration. It all looks spectacular after the fact.
Crosby’s brilliance acknowledged, this year’s Stanley Cup was a real team victory. That’s often said, but not always true.
Coach Mike Sullivan was a bigger factor this year than last. The Penguins’ focus never wavered. Sullivan’s lineup machinations were impeccable and reaped results tangible and otherwise. No Penguins coach has had his finger more accurately on the pulse of his team since Bob Johnson in 1991.
Can the Penguins possibly three-peat?
Probably not. But how could you bet against them? They can always ask ex-Penguin Bryan Trottier for advice. Trottier played for the last team to win a third Cup in a row, the 1981-82 New York Islanders.
The Penguins led the Islanders 3-1 with less than six minutes left in Game 5 of that season’s best-of-five first-round series. Final score in OT: Islanders 4, Penguins 3. That’s just how the Penguins were then.
That’s not how the Penguins are now. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).