Carl Hagelin #62 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores a empty net goal during the third period against the Nashville Predators in Game Six of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE — They say dynasties don’t exist anymore. And maybe they are right. Maybe no team will win four straight Stanley Cups like the New York Islanders did back in the day.
But what the Pittsburgh Penguins achieved in back-to-back years is pretty special.
Rookie goalie Matt Murray recorded his second straight shutout and Patric Hornqvist scored with 95 seconds remaining in the third period, as the Penguins defeated the Nashville Predators 2-0 in Game 6 to win their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
It was the first time that a team has repeated as champions in almost 20 years. And for that, the Penguins mostly have Sidney Crosby to thank.
Crosby, who won his second straight Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, scored eight goals and 27 points in 24 games. He now has three championships. That is one more than Mario Lemieux — and the Penguins captain is not yet 30 years old.
“Sid is obviously an unbelievable player,” said Phil Kessel, who has won in each of the two years since coming to Pittsburgh in a trade from Toronto. “You watch him out there and he does the little things and he does them well. You just follow his lead. We did it again.”
This year’s win might have been harder than a year ago. The team was missing Kris Letang and was missing Murray for the first two rounds. By the time the Penguins reached the final, the team was running on fumes.
But they found that extra gear when they needed it, even if the Predators had been the better team at times.
Evgeni Malkin had 28 points, including three goals in the Cup final. Jake Guentzel, who was in the minors for most of the year, led the playoffs with 13 goals. And Murray, who came back from injury and replaced Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 3 in the Eastern Conference final, played his best when it mattered the most.
But it was Crosby who willed this team to victory.
He might not have scored the game-winner in Game 6, but the Penguins wouldn’t be here without him. He scored seven points in six games against the Predators. In the process, he made a household name out of Guentzel.
“You come to the rink every day and you get to play with him, so it’s special,” said the 22-year-old rookie. “Obviously, he took me under his wing every day. I was fortunate to have him. It’s crazy how this year went. Lots of ups and downs. But this is definitely the way to end it.”
The Penguins had been in this situation before in the playoffs, having led 3-2 against the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators. Both times, they failed to close things out in Game 6 and needed a win in Game 7.
Pittsburgh had hoped to learn from that mistake. But it’s not always about the team trying to close. The Predators were a desperate team. They were also confident, having outplayed the Penguins for most of the series. And they were at home, where they had a near spotless record in the playoffs.
This one was a nail-biter, the first competitive game in a series that had followed no formula except that the home team had won each of the first five games. That obviously changed in Game 6. But it wasn’t easy.
The first three periods were like watching an extended overtime. No one wanted to give up the first goal. No one even wanted to give up a scoring chance.
When they did, the goalies were there to bail them out.
Both Rinne and Murray had been good at times during this series — but never in the same game. In Game 6, we were finally treated to a goalie duel.
When Nashville finally put one in the net, it didn’t count.
About a minute into the second period, Filip Forsberg took a wrist shot that Penguins goalie Matt Murray got a piece of, but ended up sneaking underneath his arm and dribbling towards the goal line. Nashville’s Colton Sissons poked the puck into the net, but just as the crowd started cheering the referee was waving the goal off.
The refs, of course, were not to blame for Nashville’s lost.
The Predators had chances. They had four power plays in the game, including back-to-back opportunities midway through the second. It should have resulted in one, if not two goals. But Pittsburgh’s penalty kill, which was basically Murray standing on his head, kept Nashville off the board.
With Murray holding down the fort, the Penguins finally snuck one past Rinne. It was a weird one. A shot from Justin Schultz bounced off the back of the net and Hornqvist somehow banked the puck in off Rinne and into the net.
Carl Hagelin added an empty-netter for good measure.
“It’s the toughest trophy in all of sports to win,” said Lemieux. “It’s something special.”
Ron Hainsey #65 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup trophy after defeating the Nashville Predators 2-0 in Game Six of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
HAINSEY IS THE CHOSEN ONE
When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup, Sidney Crosby was once again the first to lift it. The only question was who he would pass it to.
Would it be Marc-Andre Fleury? Matt Cullen? Evgeni Malkin?
Last year, Crosby handed it off to injured defenceman Trevor Daley, whose mother had been battling cancer. This year, the honour went to Ron Hainsey.
It was once again a sentimental choice.
Hainsey, who joined the team at the trade deadline, might not have played much with the Penguins this year. But in his short time with the team, he had made a big impact. With Kris Letang out of the lineup, the Penguins relied on the veteran defenceman for top-pairing minutes.
But perhaps the biggest reason Hainsey got the Cup was that he had never even come close to this moment before. Prior to this season, the 36-year-old had never even played in the playoffs.