There was a moment in the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs when things didn’t look so good for Sidney Crosby – or the Pittsburgh Penguins. Crosby happened to be in the wrong place (the front of the Washington Capitals’ net) at the wrong time (when Alex Ovechkin and Matt Niskanen concussed him as he was trying to make a play).
Crosby missed one game in the series, looked out of sync for a couple more, but got it back just in time for the Penguins to defeat the Capitals, the NHL’s top regular season team. They were like that throughout the two-month playoff grind.
Whenever Pittsburgh needed to up the ante, they did – mostly through the sheer will and determination of Crosby and his right-hand man, Evgeni Malkin.
And on Sunday, they did it again, defeating the Nashville Predators 2-0 in a close, tight, tension-filled sixth game of the Stanley Cup final.
The game was scoreless until the 58th minute of play when Patric Hornqvist, who was originally drafted by Nashville with the 230th and final pick of the 2005 NHL entry draft, scored at the 18:25 mark of the third period to give Pittsburgh the victory.
The win meant the Penguins were the first team in two decades to successfully defend the Stanley Cup they won last year.
It was a goaltender’s duel for much of the night, with Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray posting back-to-back shutouts for his team, to outduel his Predators counterpart, Pekka Rinne, who rebounded from a bad outing one game earlier to give his team a chance as well.
Carl Hagelin iced the game for Pittsburgh with an empty-net goal with 14 seconds to go in regulation. It was Pittsburgh’s 49 playoff game of the past two seasons.
For the Predators, it was a difficult loss and turned on a pivotal moment 1:07 into the second period, when Murray couldn’t freeze a hard shot from the Predators’ Filip Forsberg and let it drop free in the goal crease, where Colton Sissons poked the puck over the line.
Unhappily for Nashville, referee Kevin Pollock was positioned to Murray’s right and behind the goal line and thus lost sight of the puck which, by rule, obliged him to blow the whistle.
Just about everybody else on the ice could see the puck was loose, including Forsberg, who was behind the net and immediately expressed his displeasure. But there was zero chance there’d be a reversal, and the Predators had to forge ahead, and put the memory of that bad break behind them.
For Pittsburgh, it was an extraordinary run that ended with the most entertaining game of the series by far.
Pittsburgh ran Nashville out of their building in Game 5 – a resolute and decisive 6-0 victory – and then managed to squeak out a win on the road for the first time in the series. The Predators had been 9-1 at the Bridgestone Arena in the playoffs, but facing an elimination game, with the Stanley Cup in the building, couldn’t pull off one more fan-fuelled victory.
Crosby’s play in these playoffs capped an extraordinary that began with a strong outing for Canada in the World Cup back in September. He led the NHL in goal-scoring (with 44) for the second time in his career. He missed six regular-season games and one more in the playoffs because of concussions, which will undoubtedly be a talking point as his career moves forward.
But now he has won three Stanley Cups; was a finalist a fourth time; and you can now making the case that he’s edged his way into the discussion of the top-five players of all time.
“Sid’s a difference-maker,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think he sets the tone for our team. He’s the heartbeat of this hockey team, and his leadership certainly helps this team be the type of team or create the identity that we want to create.”
This year, as part of the NHL’s 100 anniversary, the NHL held a fan contest to name the top 100 teams of all time. Inexplicably, the 1992 Penguins – a team that just barely finished above .500 in the regular season – were chosen the No. 2 team of all time. That team was large on talent, but had many underachieving moments until the playoffs.
The newly christened champions will ultimately be remembered as just the opposite – and for the resilience they demonstrated from the start of the year to the finish.
Consider that the Penguins played the entire playoffs without their No. 1 defenceman Kris Letang, who made a major contribution to their 2016 championship effort. Murray was injured in the warm-ups of the first game of the first round and didn’t return to duty until halfway through the third round. At different times in the playoffs, Crosby, Justin Schultz, Hornqvist, Nick Bonino, Hagelin, Trevor Daley and others all missed time because of injury.
There were nights when the Penguins didn’t play championship-calibre hockey. They were a bend-but-don’t-break team until it got down to short strokes, and then they found a way to win.
Sullivan inherited the Penguins midway through last season and has now led them to back-to-back championships in 18 months on the job.
Without Letang, the Penguins had to deploy defence by committee – similar actually to what the Carolina Hurricanes did to win the 2006 Stanley Cup championship, a team then coached by Peter Laviolette, now behind the Predators’ bench.
Brian Dumoulin, acquired by Pittsburgh from Carolina in the Jordan Staal trade, is their ice time leader on the blue line, at 21 minutes and 49 seconds on average per night. Nashville has three defencemen over 25 minutes per night (Roman Josi, P.K. Subban and Matthias Ekholm) and Ryan Ellis was close before he left the game early the other night, which dropped his time-on-ice average just below 24 minutes. Ellis played the game in obvious pain, but ultimately decided to play because he didn’t want to watch a possible deciding game from the sidelines. These playoffs were a war of attrition on both sides, finally won by a game and determined Penguins, led by the game and determined Crosby. History awaits.
The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Jun. 11, 2017 11:04PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Jun. 12, 2017 2:33AM EDT