There are 82 games played by each team in one season in the National Hockey League. All 30 (and now 31) desire to play in the playoffs where 86 is guaranteed. Only 16 teams will have such a privilege. Only two teams will be guaranteed more than 94. Others may reach 94, but may not even advance past round two, mathematically speaking.
It takes 16 wins to hoist the largest sports trophy in North America. But for the Pittsburgh Penguins, it took 107 games played to hoist the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row – an incredible feat, especially in the salary cap-era. The last team to win consecutive Cups was the Detroit Red Wings, in 1997 and 1998. Before that? The Pittsburgh Penguins.
Back in 1991 and 1992, Mario Lemieux led the Pens to back-to-back Cups alongside Jaromir Jagr and others. Jagr still has aspirations of playing in the league, chasing his third title, while “Super Mario” just added his fifth ring to his hand as both a player and executive. On all five occasions, Mario has had to travel back to Pittsburgh with the beloved chalice.
Behind each Stanley Cup-winning team is a story. Some of triumph over tribulation. Some of domination. Some of pure will to win. But of each team, one thing is for certain: greatness. And when it comes to greatness, and other facets of life, they say “it takes one to know one.” If anyone knows greatness, it’s Mario, and he recognized the same in Sidney Crosby long-ago.
Captain Crosby just had arguably the best year of his entire life. On June 12, 2016, he hoisted his first cup in seven years in front of thousands of disappointed San Jose Sharks fans. In the fall of 2016, Crosby led Team Canada to Gold at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He earned the “Rocket” Richard Trophy for the 2016-17 season, leading all players with 44 goals. Sid also hit the 1,000-point milestone in his 757th contest in the NHL – the 12th-fastest in NHL history.
With 27 points in 24 games this spring to go along with an incredible performance on both ends of the rink, he earned his second Conn Smythe Trophy in a row as playoff MVP. And 364 days after his second Stanley Cup, Crosby lifted another one, this time in front of an exuberant crowd at the Bridgstone Arena in Nashville. Two Cups; two Conn Smythe Trophies; a “Rocket” Richard Trophy; and a Gold Medal – all in the year preceding his 30th birthday. Night in and night out, he continues to prove he is the best in the world today.
For many others on the squad, it was also the best year of their lives as well. In particular, so is the case for goaltender Matt Murray. Murray, still technically a rookie, just earned his second Cup, a feat never before accomplished by another netminder. After relieving Marc-Andre Fleury in the Eastern Conference Finals, Murray recorded three shutouts en route to the title, including keeping the puck out of the net in the last two matchups against the Nashville Predators. No other rookie goalie has had two shutouts in the final series.
Youth wins cups. If Matt Murray has not proved that, let’s take a look at Jake Guentzel. The 22-year old tied Dino Ciccarelli’s rookie record for most points in the playoffs (21). While Guentzel fell just one goal shy of tying Ciccarelli’s record of 14, Guentzel’s 13 goals are good for most amongst American rookies in the playoffs.
Before the regular season is over every year, teams look to boost their rosters at the trade deadline. This year, the Penguins added a couple of veteran blueliners who had never won a Stanley Cup before in 39-year old Mark Streit and 37-year old Ron Hainsey. As a matter of fact, Hainsey had never played in the playoffs before 2017. He waited a long time to hoist the Cup. Not longer than Raymond Bourque. But a long time, indeed. Because both players appeared in at least one game in the Stanley Cup Finals, their names will eventually be engraved. They have reached immortality in hockey.
Either one of the veterans may not have gotten this chance had it not been for Kris Letang on the sidelines. An MRI in February determined that Letang had a herniated disc. On April 5, after considerable rehab, the Penguins announced that it was determined that surgery was a must for the defenseman, shutting him down for the playoffs. His last game of the season was his 41st – his name will automatically be engraved on the Cup for the third time.
Centerman Nick Bonino was unable to appear in the final four matchups against the Preds. In game two, he sustained a broken left tibia as a result of a blocked shot by Preds’ defenseman P.K. Subban. Nevertheless, both Bonino and Letang got dressed and skated with their teammates with the Stanley Cup after the final buzzer on Sunday evening.
Every year, there is one player who claims the distinguishment of scoring the Stanley Cup-clinching tally. In 2017, that honor belongs to Patric Hornqvist who capitalized on a lively bounce off the end boards and banked the puck in off of Pekka Rinne’s elbow from behind the goal-line. Hornqvist was competing against the team who had drafted him in the 2005 draft in the seventh-round, 230th-overall. Hornqvist was the last pick In the draft that year. The first-overall choice was none other than his future captain, Sidney Crosby. In late June of 2014, he was dealt to the Pens, along with Nick Spaling, for James Neal. Carl Hagelin closed the scoring for the season with an empty-netter as Rinne watched from the bench.
We must not forget the man behind the players responsible for two championship-victories in a row. Head Coach Mike Sullivan stepped in last season for the final 54 games of the season to go on and lead the Pens to their fourth Cup in franchise history. On Sunday night, Sullivan became the first coach in franchise history to lead the Pens to multiple Stanley Cups. Additionally, no American-born coach had won the Stanley Cup more than once before Sunday night. Finally, Sullivan was matched-up against Preds’ coach Peter Laviolette, a fellow Massachusetts-native and Stanley Cup champion-coach himself. Before 2017, the Stanley Cup Finals had never seen American-born coaches pinned against each other.
Though the loss certainly stings for the Preds and their fans, Smashville should be proud of the accomplishments they have achieved this year, including first-ever franchise trips to the Western Conference and Stanley Cup Finals. The future is also bright for several players, including Colton Sissons, Viktor Arvidsson, Pontus Aberg, and several others. Laviolette had also done a fantastic job of coaching the squad to its players’ strengths.
Nashville has sold out all 41 home games this season, all 11 playoff games, and saw massive crowds for the viewing parties. There was a spring-long party in Nashville this year, proving that expansion works when given the right personnel.
Congratulations to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 2017 Stanley Cup Champions! While I’m incredibly sad that this marks the official end to the 2016-17 season, we have a long summer filled with Vegas Expansion, the Entry Draft, free agency frenzy, and the preseason leading right into the 2017-18 campaign. Stay tuned…