By Larry Brooks
June 12, 2017
The Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate with the Stanley Cup after the they defeated the Nashville Predators 2-0 to win Game Six of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Penguins won the series 4-2. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
I am not sure that the 2016-17 Stanley Cup champion Penguins merit recognition as a singular all-time team, but I am certain that this repeat championship is an achievement worthy of all-time recognition.
For it is not only that Pittsburgh pulled off the first repeat of the 12-year hard-cap era in which successful teams are punished for their success. It is that this group accomplished the feat with a seemingly pedestrian defense corps that operated throughout the playoffs without its lone Grade-A blueliner, Kris Letang, who was recovering from early April neck surgery.
The Penguins staved off the 16-seed Nashville, a country song to be celebrated in its own right, in a six-game final that was reflective less of artistry than of stamina, poise and resilience. But the yellow brick road to claiming the chalice was fraught with danger. Maybe not with lions and tigers and bears, oh my, but rather with the fourth-overall Blue Jackets in Round One and the first-overall Caps in Round Two.
The Penguins were the team that had to run the Metropolitan Division gauntlet in the NHL’s curiously unfair playoff format. They not only survived it, but lived to celebrate it.
Credit is due head coach Mike Sullivan and his staff. A few weeks ago, I was talking to Rangers’ president Glen Sather about Sullivan, who was John Tortorella’s assistant in New York. You know what Sather said?
“He cares about his players. He came in and right away showed them that he cares.”
Credit is due general manager Jim Rutherford and his staff, who built on what current New Jersey GM Ray Shero left behind. Credit is due the goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, each of whom performed brilliantly in twin roles as starters and backups. Credit is due the role players and the depth guys who performed wonderfully.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (L) poses with Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins as he presents him the Conn Smythe Trophy after the Penguins defeated the Nashville Predators 2-0 to win the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
And all credit is due the remarkable Sidney Crosby and his near equal on the totem pole of NHL history, Evgeni Malkin. The Great Oilers presented Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier down the middle. The Red Wings had Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov. The Avalanche had Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg (even as Forsberg missed the entire 2001 final against the Devils following an appendectomy). None was necessarily a more dangerous one-two punch than this one.
The time to mock or question Crosby is over and for all time. The time or two he may get away without a call doesn’t come close to measuring against the abuse he takes on a nightly basis. Crosby was punished regularly in the playoffs. He rose above it. He soldiered on to raise the Cup high above his head for the third time.
He is, without question, the greatest player of this generation and due every ounce of respect that comes his way. He has earned it. He is not only a great player and a tough player, but a great ambassador for the sport. Others — other marquee guys — routinely hide from the media. Not this one. Crosby is front and center, game days, off days, regular season, postseason, the World Cup of Hockey.
He is a role model, is Sidney Crosby, the captain of a Penguins team worthy of much more than a footnote in NHL history in the aftermath of the most notable achievement of the hard-cap era.