This Cup Is Special, So Soak It Up

NHL: JUN 12 Stanley Cup Final - Game 6 - Penguins at Sharks
Anytime the team you root for wins a championship, it’s special.

(Photo: Pittsburgh Penguins players pose for photos with the Stanley Cup after Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals against the San Jose Sharks in San Jose, Calif., Sunday, June 12, 2016. The Penguins won 3-1 to win the series 4-2. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

But this Stanley Cup championship for the Pittsburgh Penguins is extra special.

This was a team many, including myself, had given up for dead in December. They weren’t scoring. They weren’t skating. They were boring to watch. They didn’t resemble what we have come to know and love about the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It doesn’t matter if you started watching the Pens during the Lemieux-era or if you jumped on board at the start of the Crosby-Malkin-era or even if you just started watching the last few seasons, the thing that always made the Penguins the Penguins was offense, offense, offense.

And yet, when Mike Johnston took over the club at the start of the 2014-15 season, things just weren’t clicking. The Penguins barely made the playoffs last year – and truth be told they didn’t really belong in those playoffs and were quickly dispatched by the New York Rangers in five games.

Things seemed to be at the lowest point of the Crosby-Malkin-era by the time the Pens short run in the 2015 playoffs ended. It couldn’t possibly get any worse, could it?

Second-year general manager Jim Rutherford tried to make sure it wouldn’t acquiring uber-talented but seemingly eccentric Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs over the summer.

I will be the first one to admit I didn’t like the trade at the time. I just thought it was the Penguins being the Penguins. Acquire a big-time name and win a Stanley Cup like it was the NBA. But the NHL has never really been like the NBA, and especially not in the last 20-25 years. You don’t win Cups with superstars; you win them with a team concept. I said at the time; they only way the Kessel trade is a good one is if the Penguins hoist the Stanley Cup in June.

Shows what I know, doesn’t it? I guess you could say the trade was a great one.

But it sure the heck wasn’t looking great one in early December. The Penguins were floundering, at least by their lofty standards. They weren’t exciting to watch. They weren’t scoring. Sidney Crosby looked like a shell of his former self. The defense was slow. Really, only Marc-Andre Fleury was looking any good.

Then the change came. The ax fell on Johnston, and Mike Sullivan was called up from Wilkes-Barre Scranton and the Baby Penguins to take over behind the bench.

The change wasn’t immediate. The Penguins lost Sullivan’s first four games. But slowly and surely things started to turn around. The team started playing better. There was an influx of new talent via trades that brought Trevor Daley and Carl Hagelin into the fold. And there were the players that came from Wilkes-Barre Scranton like Bryan Rust, Connor Sheary and eventually Matt Murray.

And something funny started to happen. The dormant Penguins were all of a sudden fun to watch again. And a feeling that something special was brewing started to come back.

But then in mid-March Evgeni Malkin went down with an injury that would keep him out of the rest of the regular season. The playoffs were not a sure thing at the time. In fact, many thought the Malkin injury would doom them.

It didn’t. In fact, it had the opposite effect. It galvanized the team. And it brought together a line of Kessel, Hagelin and Nick Bonino – from now until eternity to be known as the HBK Line.

With the team rolling at the end of March, the injury bug caught up to them again. This time in the way of a concussion for franchise goalie Fleury thrusting Murray, who had already been dubbed the goalie of the future, into the spotlight as the starter.

As it turned out, the Murray fellow could play a little hockey, and the Penguins, once thought of as dead in the water, finished with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. But now Murray was hurt too, out with apparently his own concussion after Sullivan, in one of the few strange moves he made as a head coach, deciding to start him in a meaningless regular-season finale against Philadelphia.

Enter third-string keeper Jeff Zatkoff, who had been all but cast aside when Murray was summoned from the minors in the second half of the season.

And Zatkoff held his own going 1-1 in the first two games of the Rangers series before Murray returned. And the Pens dispatched the Blue Shirts, who had eliminated them in each of the last two seasons, with ease making a mockery out of Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers star netminder.

Next up, the big bad Washington Capitals. The team with the NHL’s best record. But any longtime Pens fan will tell you no one is afraid of the Capitals. They are the best regular-season team money can buy, but when it comes to the postseason, they are kind of like the Cincinnati Bengals. All bark and no bite.

And sure enough, after losing Game One in Washington, the Pens roared back to take the series in six games winning a weird if not exciting Game 6 at home that saw the Pens go out to a 3-0 lead only to watch the Caps force overtime. But Bonino came up with one of the biggest goals of his career in the extra session sending the Penguins onto the Eastern Conference Finals.

In the ECF, the defending Eastern Champion Tampa Bay Lightning were waiting. And the Lightning turned out to be the Pens toughest test of the playoffs.

Things looked bleak when Tampa charged out to a 4-0 lead in Game 5 with the series tied at two. But the Pens roared back scoring three times in the third period. If the game had only gone another five minutes, Pittsburgh might have tied it. But as it was Tampa was going home with a 3-2 series lead. For the first time, this group had its back against the wall.

But backs against the wall seemed to be when the 2016 Penguins were at their best. Behind Crosby, they won Game 6 forcing a deciding Game 7 on home ice. But Game 7’s on home ice hadn’t been kind to this group of flightless birds over the years.

This one was. And a Pens victory meant a date with Lord Stanley and the San Jose Sharks.

All the pundits outside of Pittsburgh said the Pens had no shot. The Sharks were from the mighty, mighty Western Conference. The Western Conference that had produced all but one champion since the last time the Penguins took home the Cup in 2009.

The Sharks were going to be just as fast as the Penguins and much more physical.

Funny thing about those pundits. They hadn’t been watching the Penguins. No team in recent NHL history was as fast as this group. And that was evident from the drop of the puck in Game 1. The Penguins were faster, much, much faster, than the Sharks. And they were better too. That was apparent early on in the series.

But still there were doubters. Just wait until the Sharks get home to San Jose with the great crowds they have. And those doubters were saying I told you so after the Sharks won Game 3.

The Pens, though, as they did all playoff season when losing a game, came back strong and took Game 4 in San Jose meaning the Stanley Cup would be in the building in Game 5 in Pittsburgh with a chance for a Pittsburgh team to clinch a championship for the first time at home since 1960.

But with 1960 World Series hero Bill Mazereroski in the house, things didn’t quite go as planned. San Jose came out flying and the Penguins, admittedly, got caught up in the moment early on. Before you knew it, San Jose led 2-0.

The Pens fought back. They quickly tied the game at 2 and then had a shot ring off the pipe and another go straight across the goal line. San Jose then scored to make it 3-2 at the end of the first period, and thanks to brilliant goaltending by the Sharks Martin Jones, the series was heading back to San Jose for a Game 6.

The city of Pittsburgh was on edge. The fans were nervous, worried and anxious.

These Penguins were anything but. They were confident. They were a little peeved at themselves for blowing a chance to win at home. They were also loose still cracking jokes – and this is no small thing. One of the things that possibly kept the Penguins from winning another Cup from 2009-2015 was the fact they didn’t always seem like they were having fun. They seemed like the pressure of the expectations to win another Cup were getting to them.

Not this group. From all accounts, this was a fun-loving group. And a lot of that credit seemed to go to Kessel, who turned out to be anything by eccentric and to be a great teammate.

And when Brian Dumoulin scored first Sunday night to put the Pens up 1-0, you knew this was going to be different.

Of course, there was still a moment of anxiety when Logan Couture tied the game in the second period. But as the Pens had done so many times since Mike Sullivan took over, they answered right back. Less than 1:30 later, Kris Letang took a feed from Crosby and banked it off of Jones for what turned out to be the Cup-clinching goal.

With over half the game to go, the Sharks still came hard in the second period at least, and Murray made some key saves.

Then the Penguins went into shutdown mode. Maybe shutdown mode like never before in franchise history. The Sharks managed two – yes two – shots on goal in the third period. And when Crosby fed Patrick Hornqvist for an empty-net goal with just over a minute to play Elvis Left the Building, even if longtime Hall of Fame Penguins play-by-play man Mike Lange wouldn’t say it – Lange is a hockey guy, after all, he wasn’t about to jinx it. And while he might not have said it, you could hear the excitement in his voice.

He knew it. You knew it. I knew it.

This team we all left for dead in December was about to be handed the best trophy in sports. Soak it up Pittsburgh. Soak it up Clarion. Soak it up Oil City and Franklin. Soak it up Brookville and Punxsutawney. Because, it doesn’t get any better than this. And it never gets old. Repeat after me. The 2016 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins.


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