The Pittsburgh Penguins pose for a group photo with the Stanley Cup Trophy after they defeated 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)
NASHVILLE—What a game, this hockey. In the second period the Pittsburgh Penguins already felt like the next goal was going to win, because it was one of those games. There were chances both ways, sloshing and slashing back and forth, dead even. We’ve all seen those games, right? Next goal wins.
And then the next goal didn’t win. The Nashville Predators scored in the second period, a Filip Forsberg shot that Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray couldn’t handle, and as it dropped into the crease referee Kevin Pollock, in the near corner, blew the play dead before Nashville’s Colton Sissons could poke the puck in. He was blocked from the play, so the play vanished. Blown call, 100 per cent. Brutal call.
“It’s crazy how that’s not a goal,” said Nashville defenceman Ryan Ellis, who played 24:05 through extreme discomfort from an undisclosed injury. “This isn’t fun, to come all this way, play an extra two months for really nothing.”
“It just feels wrong,” said Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne.
But that is hockey. The game stayed scoreless, and the tension rose with every play that ended in a shot that skittered wide, a save, a puck someone couldn’t quite corral. Murray was magnificent; Rinne was cool. They all gave everything they had, and the clock bled down.
And with 1:45 left, Chris Kunitz, the 37-year-old Penguins veteran, somehow controlled a whole shift and got a puck to the point, and the shot bounced off the end boards and hit the back of the net just right, so that when Patric Hornqvist swung at it, it banked off Rinne and in: 1-0. Carl Hagelin added an empty netter, and Pittsburgh won Game 6 and their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
It was ugly, but could have been worse: Nashville fans littered the ice with debris, booed as the Penguins celebrated, rallied as the PA announcer congratulated them on a great season, and chanted “REF YOU SUCK” before cheering once more and leaving into the Nashville night.
“Kuny got it to the net,” said Hornqvist. “I just tried to bank it in off Rinne and it worked. Eh, f--- it.”
Patric Hornqvist #72 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores the game-winning goal past goalie Pekka Rinne #35 of the Nashville Predators in the third period 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)
The disallowed goal wasn’t everything. Nashville had their chances: four power plays, including a flash of five-on-three. Sissons, whose nightmares will be varied this summer, somehow found himself everywhere the door could have opened: the blown call, a breakaway that he couldn’t quite lift over Murray’s glove, the outside of the post in the third period. Hockey isn’t one play, even in what was basically a one-goal game. The whole game changes if that whistle doesn’t blow, but it blew. Nobody ever said hockey was fair. The Predators were largely gracious about it, and walked out of the arena in suits, their eyes red-rimmed, their faces suddenly strangely hollow.
But Pittsburgh earned it all the same. They weren’t the ones facing elimination in Game 6. They weren’t the ones who couldn’t grab Games 1 and 2, back when the Predators were steamrolling Pittsburgh, before the Penguins figured them out, the way they figure everybody out. Sidney Crosby led all scorers with seven points in the series, and was named the winner of the Conn Smythe for a second straight year. Only two other players have ever done it. One of them, Mario Lemieux, is Crosby’s boss, and was a sort of father figure to him. Hockey echoes, sometimes.
“It’s special,” said Lemieux, with whom Crosby lived for the first three years of his prodigious career. “He’s a part of our family. We’ve had years in Pittsburgh, and he lived with us for several years, so he’s like part of our family. For our children, he’s like another brother. It’s something special.”
“It’s hard to win the Cup, as we found out over the last 10, 12 years,” said Lemieux. “We won the Cup three times, and we feel very grateful. To be able to win it back to back, it’s very special and something everyone in this organization can treasure for the rest of our lives.”
“It’s amazing team,” said Evgeni Malkin, who led all scorers in the playoffs with 28 points, one ahead of Crosby. “We have great chance to win every year. We have same team: Phil (Kessel) comes in last year from Toronto, he is so good play in playoffs, is unbelievable.” He was asked about Pittsburgh’s legacy, and like Crosby he demurred, because it’s not over yet.
“Is hard question,” said Malkin, 30. “It’s like, we just did job. Great organization, great club, great players here. But I’m not thinking about that because I think we maybe play together long time. When we’re retired we think about that. But now, we just still young, we still hungry. And of course, we want more. It’s so hard. New teams coming, new guys, Edmonton, Toronto. It’s amazing league. Every club has chance to win. We understand how hard is, every year. We understand every final, maybe last chance to win. And we play 100 per cent every game.”
They did that, and they got the break a team sometimes needs — maybe always needs, in one way or another — to win a Cup. Luck matters, but only if you give everything to get it. And all over, you could see why they do this. Nick Bonino received painkillers so he could skate around with the Cup on his broken tibia — broken clean through. Players held their children, hugged their parents, kissed their girlfriends or wives, shared it. The 40-year-old Matt Cullen, in his 21st year, played 19:42 and was at the head of Pittsburgh’s third-period penalty kill, and the Penguins all but went with three lines with the Cup in the building. He will likely retire, and he was red-eyed as his two boys romped behind him.
“It’s hard to even consider because it’s such an unknown,” Cullen said. “I mean, this is all I’ve known my whole life. I’ve played hockey since I was 2 years old. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s all I’ve ever dreamed of doing. And I thank god every day for giving me this opportunity. You know, there’s so many people who help you along the way, and it’s just a time like this, you think back on that, and you’re so thankful and so humbled. It’s awesome, you know?”
Nick Bonino #13 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup Trophy after they defeated 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)
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was nearby: he is a part of this franchise’s longstanding family, but he will almost certainly leave Pittsburgh now that he has been supplanted by Murray.
“Now we’ve been around for awhile here,” said Fleury. “When I first came around in 2003, it was tough winning games, you know? But having all these guys join me and keep battling every season, try to get a perfect team, trying to win those championships, it’s been fun. It’s been a great time, a lot of good memories. I’m glad we did it.”
He said he would remember the games he won against Columbus and Washington and Ottawa, before Murray came back from injury. They needed Fleury to get here, too. The Penguins will keep on, but some things end.
And in the end it was a lousy ending to a strange, eventful series, but the Penguins became the first team to repeat since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings, and they got to drink in the joy. They are a history team, now more than ever.
And at one end of the ice Crosby stood there, chatting with his parents, Troy and Trina, and his little sister Taylor, and you could almost imagine them younger, a hockey family, back before he fulfilled his vast promise, before all the endless hours and days and years. In the last two years Crosby has two Cups, two Conn Smythes, a goal-scoring title, a World Cup and a World Cup MVP, just for good measure. As Crosby left the ice he stopped to half-hug Cullen, stopped for Trevor Daley’s kid, for Fleury’s kid. He stopped a lot. Ron Hainsey looked over and said, “Sid’s leaving.” Crosby walked to his press conference in a white shirt with his lower-body equipment still on, carrying the Cup. It looked so natural.
“That’s probably where the most joy comes out of it — knowing how difficult it was to do, back to back,” said Crosby, now 29. Asked why he keeps going, keeps doing everything he can every day to be the best player in the world, he said, “I think probably this feeling right here. You can’t match this. And to be able to share this . . . you have a small window to play and have a career, and I feel fortunate. And I also know how difficult it is. You want to make the best of it.”
He did. They did. It’s not always a fair game, this hockey. But you earn what you can, and sometimes it lasts forever.