Way back at the start of the season—2015 feels like forever ago—the Penguins were mediocre, slumping, solidly midtable, unable to score. They had top-level talent, the knock went, but were mortally lacking in depth. Mike Sullivan was coaching the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins; Matt Murray was his goaltender there. Phil Kessel had lugged his enigmatic reputation from Toronto. And Sidney Crosby, seven years since lifting the Cup, was off to a slow enough start that people started asking what was wrong, if his window as the world’s best hockey player had closed.
A coaching change later, and an offensive surge, and a run as the best possession team in the NHL, and the crystallization of functional lines and the emergence of contributing rookies, and a postseason march in which the Penguins were never outplayed, and no one has been better than Pittsburgh in 2016. Everyone has answered every possible question from the first half of the season—even if it’s been unexpected people doing the answering—and now Crosby and Malkin and Letang have their second Cup, their legacies every bit as secure in that town as the Lemieux/Jagr/Francis teams of a generation ago.
So, yeah, the Penguins deserved the right to bring the Cup back to the locker room and serenade it enthusiastically and tunelessly.
It’s a little wild that Crosby, who took home the Conn Smythe in a questionable but defensible decision that likely involved name recognition as much as it did the acceptance that points don’t define play, is 28 years old now. Twenty-eight! He can grow a playoff beard now. And also have a little more perspective on just how difficult it is to get here.
“I wasn’t really thinking about ‘09 that much,” said Crosby. “I was just thinking about how hard it was to get to this point and just trying to enjoy every second of it. It’s not easy to get here, and having won seven years ago at a young age, you probably take it for granted a little bit. You don’t think you do at the time.”
The recognition of that struggle was there in the order of who got to hold the Cup. Crosby, the captain, handed it off to Trevor Daley, whose season ended on a broken ankle in the Eastern Conference Final and who has used off-days to visit his mother, who is battling cancer. Daley handed it off to Pascal Dupuis, the longtime Penguin whose career was ended earlier this year by blood clots. Dupuis handed it off to Marc-Andre Fleury, who’s been a part of this thing as long and as vitally as anyone else, and who lost his job and possibly his tenure after a concussion.
For all the roadblocks, you don’t win a Stanley Cup without years’ worth of good decisions. This roster was masterfully constructed, from Jim Rutherford’s busy summer of trades and free agent signings to the homegrown contributors stocked long ago by Ray Shero, and masterfully deployed by Mike Sullivan, getting the most out of every line and every pairing. There’s necessarily a post hoc selection bias to this: Some team was going to win the Cup, and we would be looking back at all the things that team did right. But six months ago, no one in the world thought that team would be the Penguins.