The Penguins are back in the Finals after their 2-1 Game 7 win over Tampa, but they are not the same old Penguins you love to hate. (But you can hate ‘em anyway.)
The knock over the last few years on the Penguins, who’ve regularly been among the league’s best but haven’t made it this deep since winning it all in 2009, was that they were top-heavy. There’s always been Crosby, and Malkin, and Letang, but once opponents got past their top six and into the depth defensemen, they were eminently defeatable. That knock was painfully true, and obvious, and I don’t think it’s possible to heap enough praise on GM Jim Rutherford (hired in 2014) for getting the players to fill out a true contending roster and coach Mike Sullivan (promoted in December) for figuring out how to use them.
Speed and pressure from all four lines; that’s the Penguins now. (Matt Cullen calls it “a really fun style,” and it’s light years from the occasionally plodding, often disjointed hockey of the darkest of the Dan Bylsma and Mike Johnston eras.) Pittsburgh went 33-16-5 after Sullivan took over, and were the league’s second-best possession team since Jan. 1, and that continued even in this conference finals series that ultimately came down to a single goal: every underlying metric, Pittsburgh dominated.
“We did a great job of becoming a certain style of team,” Chris Kunitz said. “We grew as a group. We learned through our struggles. I think that’s our biggest thing. We came out better on the back end. We played our best hockey because of the things we went through earlier in the year.”
These Penguins still have firepower: Phil Kessel is a worthy edition to the elite scorers at the top, and Crosby, even when he isn’t finding the net (though he scored three game-winning goals in this series), remains a marvel:
But Game 7 was a pretty good microcosm for why the Penguins have found so much success. With Crosby doing his thing but not getting rewarded on the scoreboard, heralded rookie goalie Matt Murray kept the Lightning in check, and decidedly unheralded rookie forward Bryan Rust accounted for both goals:
Rookies Rust, Murray, and Conor Sheary are all Ray Shero’s legacies—let’s give some credit where it’s due. And they all played in Wilkes-Barre under Sullivan, where he learned that he could trust them.
Rutherford did the heavy lifting. Trades for Kessel, Carl Hagelin, and Nick Bonino built an entire line from scratch. The HBK line is functionally the Pens’ second line now, pushing real talent to the depth lines from above rather than constructing them from below. The acquisitions of veterans Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr have made for a fourth line that’s a huge upgrade over the embarrassments of past season. The Trevor Daley trade was a winner, even if he’s lost for the rest of the year.
And, of course, enough can’t be said about the 22-year-old Murray. In these playoffs, against the clear best teams the East had to offer (and also the Rangers) Murray is 11-4; other Penguins goalies are 1-2. I am convinced, as the Pens have been for years, that he not just some rookie netminder getting flukily hot in the playoffs, but is the real deal.
The formula for beating the Penguins in years past had gotten predictable: weather the top two lines or sell out to stop them, and make your bones against the legitimately bad half of the roster. That’s no longer an option. The defense still has its questions, and will be severely tested against the Sharks, but this is new for Pittsburgh: shooters, skaters, and grinders up and down the lineup, and a goalie who can consistently win low-scoring affairs. That sounds to me like the platonic ideal of a Cup team.