Arguments against this pronouncement may be lodged but will be dismissed: What the Pittsburgh Penguins have done—win back-to-back Stanley Cups under the salary cap—is the single most impressive feat of the NHL’s modern era.
It’s just not supposed to happen, not under a tight cap that’s made it impossible for great teams to stay together without major changes (the Blackhawks’ three championships in six years is another monumental accomplishment, albeit one achieved as much in the front office as on the ice), and certainly not in a sport, subject to hot hands and puck luck, where the better team doesn’t necessarily win a series anyway. Fatigue too plays a factor—these Penguins played more games than anyone last spring, and their most important players went to the World Cup.
There are lots of very good reasons the Penguins shouldn’t have repeated as Cup champs, and they all knew it too. But when they reconvened to start their title defense, coach Mike Sullivan provided the counterargument:
“And so the very first conversation we had with these guys, I challenged them right away and said, ‘Why not?’” Sullivan said. “‘Why can’t we? Let’s not let somebody else write our story.’”
The roster of last year’s championship team was remarkably unchanged this year, a testament to Jim Rutherford’s timing in locking in good contracts and avoiding bad ones. The changes and surprises were positive ones. The biggest addition was rookie Jake Guentzel, who emerged as a first-line forward and an ideal complement to Sidney Crosby. That Marc-Andre Fleury was back this season was unexpected, but turned out to be vital—no other contender could have survived losing its starting goaltender 10 minutes before the playoffs began.
What should have done the Penguins in was losing Kris Letang to neck surgery in April. That should have been it. Teams win by riding their best defenseman for unconscionable minutes in the playoffs, when every shift matters so much, and last year Letang was crucial in playing an average of 28:53 per game. Without him, there were no workhorses and the Penguins didn’t try to force one: In these playoff, no defenseman played more than 21:59 a game.
The remaining blueline corps did not exactly inspire fear: Dumoulin-Hainsey, Maatta-Daley, Schultz-Cole. And sure, Chad Ruhwedel too! Here’s a pretty wild stat:
They did what they needed to do, on a team whose strength was never supposed to be its defense. They had Fleury and then Matt Murray behind them, dominating at least a couple games each series, and high-powered forwards in front of them, making the most of scoring chances even when getting outshot more often than not. (This thread, from a couple of weeks ago, still sticks in my mind. It makes the case that the Penguins winning games while losing the possession battle is not a fluke, but a function of having the most talented forward group in hockey. “Unsustainable” shot percentages are maybe not an outlier when you’ve got the likes of Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel, and sure, an on-fire Guentzel too.)
In trying to explain why the Penguins were able to do something unprecedented, I’ve made it an awful long way without mentioning Crosby or Malkin. Maybe that’s because their role goes without saying. It shouldn’t. The Penguins won back-to-back Cups because they have two of the best, if not the best centers in hockey. Crosby and Malkin combined for 55 points, 18 of them goals, in 24 playoff games, and being able to roll future hall of famers at 1C and 2C guarantees the Penguins two formidable lines no matter who’s playing alongside them, be they rookies or sophomores, or role players, or defensive-minded forwards. For some 50 percent of every game, the Penguins have the advantage no matter who’s on the other side of the ice, and they’re free to put some real talent on their third and fourth lines. It may be a long time before another team repeats, because it ought to be a long, long time before another team has two players like this.
“It’s a hard question,” Malkin said when asked about where he and Crosby would rank among the game’s top pairs.
“Maybe when we’re retired, we’ll think about it. But now, we’re still young and we’re still hungry and of course we want more.”
And Crosby...what can you say? He’s the best in the world and it’s not particularly close. Just the third player to win back-to-back Conn Smythe trophies as playoff MVP (following Mario Lemiux and Bernie Parent), he was, in this postseason and especially these finals, an absolute force every time he was on the ice, in all three zones. It wasn’t subtle, either—his passing, his stickwork, his backchecking and forechecking, his ability to read a play two steps ahead and spring for rushes—Crosby’s play demanded attention. At 29 years old and in the peak of his peak, he was able to reach and maintain a level that would’ve seemed absurd if he didn’t keep doing it shift after shift, night after night. It’s impossible to directly compare his career with the legends of different eras, especially those of the high-scoring ‘80s, but I’d take him against anyone.
Crosby’s usual pestiness cropped up again this postseason, those little irritating things he does so well that so bother opponents and opposing fans. It’s part of his game, and if you come away from this season disliking him even more, that’s understandable, but maybe also a disservice. Because when his playing days are done, these are the playoffs we’re going to remember as the height of his powers; the best hockey player on earth playing the best hockey of his career. It’s a privilege to watch, even if it’s not always a pleasure.
The same, I suppose, could be said for these Penguins. No one outside Pittsburgh was rooting for them to win another Cup, the third of the Crosby/Malkin/Kunitz/Letang/Fleury core. They, like the Blackhawks and Devils and Red Wings and other dynasties of hockey past, were resented in their time—go away and let someone else win!—and the impressiveness of their achievements tends to only come into focus with remove. But a funny thing happens when you win enough: You start beating people over the head with your greatness and they have no choice but to accept it. These Penguins did something incredible. Don’t wait for the remove of history to appreciate it.